Five Ways to Support the Mental Health of Shift Workers

Updated: Oct 13

By Bernie Wong | Senior Manager of Insights and Principal, Mind Share Partners

Photo by Tiger Lily via Pexels

Healthcare, customer service, call centers, food, retail, hospitality, security, and emergency services ⁠— these industries are all fundamentally built upon the labor of shift workers. However, many of these workers face unique and long-unaddressed challenges by virtue of the nature of their roles that directly impact not only their mental health at work but their livelihoods.

The prevailing dialogue around organizational culture and supporting mental health at work often centers on white-collar workers operating during standard daytime hours in an office or remotely. But how do we support the experiences of 16% of the U.S. workforce who work shift schedules outside of that norm?

In this article, we provide a high-level overview of the shift worker experience as it pertains to workplace mental health. We'll talk through five prevalent workplace factors that uniquely apply to shift work, and how these factors impact workplace mental health. We'll then discuss five best practices to support shift employees.

What are the unique challenges to shift workers' mental health?

A growing movement of workers from Amazon, Starbucks, REI, and many more are seeking unionization amidst long-neglected histories of worker exploitation, poor working conditions, unpredictable schedules, poor pay — the list goes on. In fact, union representation petitions have increased 56% between the first three quarters of FY2021 into FY2022.

Employers are increasingly being called upon to take meaningful action in protecting the health and wellbeing of their workers. Understanding the unique challenges shift workforce face is vital to being able to support them adequately.

1. Shift work is associated with poorer mental health outcomes.

This includes higher rates of depressive symptoms and anxiety. In fact, one study found that the risk of depressive symptoms was 33% higher in shift workers than in non–shift workers. And an even broader landscape of research has tied shift work to physical health issues as well, including gastrointestinal, metabolic, cardiovascular, and reproductive conditions.

“Shift work is associated with considerable impacts on sleep, depressed mood and anxiety, substance use, impairments in cognition, lower quality of life, and even suicidal ideation. Pronounced sleep disturbances frequently underlie the mental health consequences of shift work.” - Jessica P. Brown, PhD, et al. (source)

Why is this the case? Shift workers themselves are most certainly not biologically wired any differently. What about shift work itself poses a risk to worker wellbeing?