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Shiftwork a challenge for aging worker.

Working nights and odd shifts is "definitely" a problem for the older worker, says a Sudbury public health nurse, and it's a challenge that employers must address in the coming years as Canada's workforce ages.

"The issues of sleep and shiftwork can become a problem around the age of 45-50," says Mary Ann Diosi, a public health nurse with the Sudbury and District Health Unit. Diosi was a speaker last month at a Laurentian University kinesiology conference entitled 'The Aging Workforce.'

Research shows that a person's sleeping pattern changes as they grow older, in that either they have difficulty falling asleep or simply need less time in bed. Factor in an unbalanced lifestyle of working strange hours, drinking too much coffee, not eating well and getting little exercise, and shiftworkers are more susceptible to suffering from a whole slew of health problems.

However, there's no conclusive evidence to support that older workers on shiftwork pose any safety risk on the job, Diosi says.

Diosi noticed there were conflicting viewpoints at the Sudbury conference among ergonomists, occupational health professionals and researchers as to whether or not older workers gradually become less productive on the job and more accident-prone. Some said that their reaction time in certain situations may be slightly diminished while others believed it's compensated for through workplace knowledge and experience.

About 25 per cent of the Canadian workforce are shiftworkers and that percentage is expected to increase over time as more businesses expand to 24-hour operations. But how employers will deal with the job consequences of shiftwork as Canada's workforce ages remains a big question.

Shiftwork can create havoc with the body's internal clock regardless of age, Diosi says, and some segments of the population simply can't make the transition.

The body's circadian cycle is a 24-hour cycle which controls functions such as body temperature, digestion and respiration and induces us to fall asleep at night and stay awake during daylight hours. Triggers like sunlight keep us on that schedule.

"It is possible to alter our circadian rhythm to adapt to shiftwork, but it takes a minimum of 2 to 3 weeks for that to happen."

"About 20 per cent of people just can't adapt and half (of that percentage) can do it for a certain period of time. As your body gets older, it has a harder time adjusting. Only a small percentage can do it."

Ome of the downsides to shiftwork can be losing up to two hours of sleep a day. And continued sleep loss deprivation can lead to a number of health problems such as chronic fatigue, depression, gastrointestinal disorders and a greater risk of heart disease.

Night-shift workers are also prone to getting into car accidents, usually in the first 15 minutes of the home commute.

"There's been a lot of research done on shiftwork," says Diosi. "Europeans are far more advanced on the whole issue - with lengthy holidays and generous parental leave policies - because they devote more time to family, friends and maintaining a healthy workplace. North America is more driven by the bottom line."

As one of a team of six workplace wellness experts, Diosi offers consultations to interested companies and institutions on matters of conflict resolution, communication, stress and active living topics.

Only lately, have some businesses expressed interest in gaining a better understanding of how shiftwork affects job performance, she says. Much of the health unit's advice focuses on making lifestyle changes in dealing with workplace stress caused by corporate downsizing, restructuring and generally having to do more with less.

The best advice in handling shiftwork she says is simply knowing oneself and understanding whether one is a 'night owl' who is more productive at 8 a.m. or 'morning lark' who is up with the sun.
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Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:627
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