Shift Work and Women's Health: Impact and Effective Strategies for Mitigation

Shift Work and Women's Health: Impact and Effective Strategies for Mitigation

Shift work requires employees to work irregular hours such as nights, early mornings, and often in rotating shifts - which can have adverse repercussions for women's health making them at higher risk of developing a range of health issues, including sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular disease, and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

With the impact of shift work on health becoming a growing concern among healthcare professionals worldwide, this article aims to shed some light on what that looks like for women and some practical solutions to mitigate them.

How Does Shift Work Affect Women's Hormonal Health?

A recent study from York university found a link between shift work and frailty among middle-aged and older workers in Canada, especially for women on rotating shifts. Circadian rhythms are moderated by sunlight exposure. When sunlight hits the eyes, signals are sent to the pineal gland in the brain – triggering certain hormones and responses that regulate alertness, mood and appetite, and a lack of light sets off other responses.

In shift workers, this process is dysregulated, and research suggests this disruption can contribute to a host of health issues such as hormone imbalances that alter melatonin, cortisol levels, reproductive hormones and insulin production levels.

Hormones impacted by shift work


Melatonin produced by the pineal gland of our brain is essential in controlling our sleep-wake cycles and maintaining quality restful slumber. Unfortunately, exposure to light during shift work can suppress melatonin production leading to decreased quality sleep as well as disruptions.


Cortisol, an essential hormone for stress response and regulation of sleep-wake cycles, may experience irregular patterns due to shift work. Abnormal cortisol levels can lead to fatigue, disturbed sleep patterns and increased stress that have an adverse impact on our daily lives.

Reproductive Hormones:

Reproductive hormones like estrogen, progesterone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH) plays an important role in menstrual cycles and can be adversely affected by shift work, leading to irregular periods, changes in menstrual flow patterns, or even fertility problems in some instances. Shift work may have adverse impacts on reproductive hormone levels causing irregular periods or flow changes leading to irregular periods and even potential fertility issues in some instances.

Insulin Resistance:

Shift work increases the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes through disrupted eating patterns, circadian misalignment, hormonal disruption, weight gain and poor hormonal regulation - leading to weight gain and health complications as a result.

Understanding Shift Work's Effect on Women

Understanding the impacts of shift work on women's health can be useful for more than just those engaging in shift work themselves, employers and managers, healthcare professionals, researchers, public health officials, family, friends and prospective shift workers alike should be aware of the negative effects as well as solutions so that they can support their application.

What are Strategies to Minimize Shift Work's Impact on Women's Health

There are a number of strategies you can deploy. The most shared from other female shift workers are: sticking to a sleep schedule (no matter what), maintaining good sleep hygiene, physical activity, maintaining a balanced and healthy diet, hydration (drink plenty of water), and take naps.  

Stick to a Sleep Schedule

Though not always easy to do especially with home and life commitments coming into the picture, maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule, even on days off, is one way to regulate and enhance the quality of your sleep.

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Maintain Good Sleep Hygiene

Establishing the ideal sleep environment by keeping the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet; limiting exposure to electronic devices before bedtime; and forgoing caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine in the hours leading up to bedtime can all help enhance quality rest.

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Mindfulness and Physical Activity

Make time for yourself by prioritizing self-care practices like meditation, yoga or deep breathing exercises as ways of managing stress. And getting regular physical activity into your schedule to regulate hormones, improve mood and facilitate better restful sleep is important too.

Maintain a Balanced Diet

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats will help support hormone balance and overall wellbeing. Aim for consistent meal times rather than large, heavy meals, especially before bedtime to achieve this aim.


Be sure to drink enough water throughout the day in order to avoid dehydration, which can exacerbate the side effects of shift work on the body.

When Possible, Take Naps

Setting aside 20-30 minute naps during breaks or before beginning night shifts can help alleviate sleep deprivation and fatigue.

Look for Support From Coworkers and Family

Communicate your concerns with coworkers who may be facing similar struggles and maintain open communication with family members to help them better comprehend your needs and work schedule.

Engaging Healthcare Providers

Communicate any changes in your menstrual cycle or overall wellbeing to your healthcare provider on an ongoing basis, and they can offer tailored advice and recommend interventions such as hormonal therapies or shift work-friendly adjustments in work schedules that may reduce its negative effects on health.

Promote Better Workplace Policies

Inform both management and coworkers of the potential health concerns associated with shift work for women. Make specific suggestions for improving workplace conditions, such as flexible scheduling, designated rest spaces or stress management workshops. Collaborate with coworkers, communicate with HR representatives and employee representatives, utilize company feedback channels, stay abreast of regulations and guidelines, remain persistent in your efforts, and remain patient while doing your work.

Dr Bassam Zeina, from Alternatives Clinic in the UK, shares that employers must take measures to mitigate the negative effects of shift work on employee health by providing adequate breaks during long shifts, offering access to healthy meals and snacks outside regular meal times, ensuring proper lighting conditions in the workplace during overnight shifts, and promoting employee wellness programs that address physical activity levels and stress management techniques specifically tailored for those who work irregular hours.

Shift work is not for everyone

There is no shame in admitting that shift work is not for you. If you are feeling the negativeimpact of shift work, speak up. Some people find shift work for them because they are night people by nature, but it certainly doesn't for everyone.  

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Shift work can have serious repercussions for women's hormonal health and overall wellbeing. By being aware of its impacts and developing effective solutions to mitigate them, women can effectively lessen the negative consequences and create a healthy work-life balance with support from employers, healthcare providers, and their community navigating shift work's unique challenges.


  • Boivin, D. B., & Boudreau, P. (2014). Impacts of shift work on sleep and circadian rhythms. Pathologie Biologie, 62(5), 292-301.
  • Kudielka, B. M., Buchtal, J., Uhde, A., & Wüst, S. (2007). Circadian cortisol profiles and psychological self-reports in shift workers with and without recent change in the shift rotation system. Biological psychology, 74(1), 92-103.
  • Labyak, S., Lava, S., Turek, F., & Zee, P. (2002). Effects of shiftwork on sleep and menstrual function in nurses. Health Care for Women International, 23(6-7), 703-714.
  • Pan, A., Schernhammer, E. S., Sun, Q., & Hu, F. B. (2011). Rotating night shift work and risk of type 2 diabetes: two prospective cohort studies in women. PLoS medicine, 8(12), e1001141.
  • Khan, Durdana MPH, MSc; Verschoor, Chris PhD; Edgell, Heather PhD; Rotondi, Michael PhD; Tamim, Hala PhD. The Association Between Shift Work Exposure and Frailty Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults: Results From the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 65(5):p 355-361, May 2023. | DOI: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000002806