Studies show shiftwork is harmful

The last time nurses’ penalty rates were reviewed was in 1975. Since then there has been a huge expansion in the understanding of the effects of shiftwork and in particular the underlying physiological factors that impact on shiftworkers.

While some shiftworkers can, over time, partially adapt to the disruption of the circadian rhythm, there is a proportion of shiftworkers who do not. It is estimated that 5 to 10% of shiftworkers suffer from what is now known as Shiftwork Sleep Disorder. These shiftworkers experience insomnia, excessive sleepiness, headaches, irritability, reduced concentration and a lack of energy that does not reduce over time.

Empirical studies on groups of shiftworkers conducted overseas show that shiftwork significantly increases a number of life-threatening physiological changes.

Research studies over the past 15 years have consistently found that shiftworkers have increased risks of:

  • breast cancer;
  • cardio-vascular disease;
  • gastro-intestinal disorders, including peptic ulcers;
  • reproductive health problems, such as pre-term births, low birth weight, spontaneous abortion and reduced fecundity.

Most disturbingly, many of these risks were found to be higher in shiftworkers working on a rotating roster system. This is the same roster system for the overwhelming majority of nurses in the NSW public health service.

While there are a number of overseas studies on shiftwork and nurses, very little detailed work has been undertaken in Australia. One such study was undertaken by the Centre for Sleep Research in South Australia. This study explored the effects of shiftwork on the social and domestic life and well-being of female shiftworkers. The study found that:

  • the majority of nurses and midwives and and their partners perceived that shiftwork was highly disruptive to joint social life, and a significant cause of family conflict;
  • night shiftwork was more disruptive to the nurses’ and midwives’ psychological, social and, to a lesser extent, physiological well-being;
  • 44% of nurses and midwives were unhappy about working shiftwork;
  • 28% of partners had tried to persuade their partner to give up shiftwork.

The study outcomes were consistent with previous findings from both male and female shiftworkers. However, female nurses and midwives reported a greater amount of social and domestic disruption than that found in studies of male shiftworkers. The authors noted that this may be related to female shiftworkers’ additional domestic responsibilities. Alternatively, it may be caused by the variable shift rosters worked by nurses and midwives in contrast to the more structured shift patterns typically worked by other shiftworkers.

Taking our campaign to Facebook
The NSWNA has created a campaign information group on the social networking website Facebook to allow nurses, midwives and members of the community to participate in the campaign and recruit friends into supporting our claims.

It is another way we can build support for our campaign with a wider audience. So if you are a Facebook user, join the group by searching for Fair Conditions. Fair Pay. Nurses Stay. It’s that simple in the Groups application – or go to and invite your friends to join our online campaign.

What you can do to help

  • Make sure your contact details are up to date. The NSWNA needs your email address, classification and mobile phone number so we can get campaign information to you fast.
  • Encourage all your friends and workmates to be NSWNA members – there is strength in numbers. They can join online or by phone today.
  • Make contact with your NSWNA Branch and offer to help organise campaign activities.
  • Wear a campaign t-shirt. See page 12 for an order form.

What we’re seeking in our claim

  • 5% pay increase per annum over four years.
  • 25% penalty loading for night work.
  • An extra 3% for certain classifications to recognise experience and increased responsibility.
  • An extra 1% employer superannuation contribution per year for each year of the award.

It’s really hard as a single mum
‘It’s really hard. Your life is a complete inverse to everyone else’s.

‘There is no time to readjust the time clock. You sleep the first day off and then you only have one day to get over night duty. It knocks your time clock around.

‘I’ve been lucky with family support but it’s still hard. I have to drop my daughter off. That means she’s not sleeping in her own bed. That’s all right for one night but not for four nights in a row. And if you have to pay for a babysitter it’s almost not worth it.

‘It’s difficult to keep in touch with friends with shiftwork. It’s hard to have a social life. You work weekends, they have weekends off so you can’t go to things like barbeques. Sport for the kids is on the weekends, too, and that’s difficult. Children’s sport is usually in the morning so you can make it after night shift, but it’s difficult to stay awake and be attentive. And driving with a child in the car when you are so tired can be dangerous.

‘If you add up the health risks, the relationship losses, the friendship losses, 15% (current penalty rate for night duty) is not a lot to be awake when everyone else is asleep.’

Leanne Courts, EN, Dubbo Base Hospital