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HEALTH CONNECTION

The graveyard shift

By David Chilton
Special to the Toronto Sun


One of Drew Garner's jobs is phoning Ted Woloshyn at home at 3:30 a.m. to wake him up for his morning shift at CFRB 1010. By then most of Garner's working day -- or rather working night -- is over and the technical operator can head home to sleep.


That's if he can sleep. Frequently Garner is still awake at noon after leaving the radio station three or more hours earlier. In short, Garner is a shift worker and thus exposed to the down side of working irregular hours -- albeit in a job he loves.

Garner is not alone. Firefighters, cops, doctors and nurses, TTC drivers, postal workers, help desk and call centre operators, and many, many others can't count on a steady nine to five with weekends off. What they can bank on, however, are physical and psychological ailments -- some minor, some serious -- if they stick with shift work over the long term.

Statistics Canada says shift workers are more likely to develop chronic mental and physical health problems than those who work more standard hours. They can expect to develop one or more of the conditions: fatigue, digestive problems, weight gain, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and so on.

If they're smokers they're also likely to smoke more, use drugs or drink more heavily, get involved in a traffic accident, experience relationship problems or get divorced.

About a month ago Garner, just 21, spent three and a half days in hospital with diverticulitis, a digestive tract problem that causes pain and cramping, fever and constipation. It was, he says, caused by his low fibre diet of fast food and vending machine fare.

Jamie Soules, 27, a night supervisor at tech support firm Dependable IT in Burlington, says, "I definitely have a hard time sleeping, and I've gained a bit of weight." Before joining Dependable, Soules worked at a beer store in Hamilton. There, too, he was on shift work. "It's hard to have a life like that," he says.
QUICK FACTS
  • About 30% of Canadian men 18 to 54 work shifts.
  • About 26% of Canadian women 18 to 54 work shifts.
  • The long-term consequences of shift work cover all manner of physical and psychological ailments including heart disease and depression.
  • Shift workers have a greater chance of being involved in traffic accidents.


  • How to deal

    Given the strain of shift work, is there anything that can be done to mitigate some of its effects?

    Karen McGrath, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario division, and a social worker by training, says quitting and finding another job that doesn't require odd hours is the only long-term solution. "Look at nurses," McGrath says. "More mature nurses move on to other careers."

    Soules copes to some extent by exercising, whether it's taking the dog out for a walk or rollerblading in the better weather. And in the last couple of months he has been watching what he eats.

    Garner, whose official shift is 11 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. weekdays, says he just does the best he can. Doctors have him on a proper diet and he eats at work rather than bingeing on junk when his shift's over.

    He tries to get out in the morning for a brisk walk or run, and he also keeps his bedroom as dark as possible. He turns off the phone and computer, too.

    All of those coping mechanisms help, but they can also have negative effects, McGrath points out, and may lead to loneliness, which causes other problems.

    Garner, an amiable sort with a ready laugh, admits he gets "kind of lonely" and says it's hard to organize any kind of social life on shift work. And as for relationships? Well, he's flat out honest: "I just don't have the time."



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