When you're young and find yourself in a job with hours outside a standard 9-to-5 work shift, you might think the only problem is losing sleep or missing out on night life with friends. But a new study shows that odd work schedules in early adulthood are linked to poor health in middle age.

To make this connection, the author of the study, Wen-Jui Han, a professor at New York University's Silver School of Social Work, and her colleagues looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-1979. It included more than 7,000 people in the U.S. over a period of 30 years. Han wanted to see whether employment patterns in younger adulthood were associated with health at the age of fifty — specifically if it affected future sleep patterns, as well as physical and mental health.

Odd work schedules in early adulthood are linked to poor health in middle age.

People in their 20's through their 40's, rarely have a straight nine-to-five schedule, Han found. “Indeed, about three-quarters of the work patterns we observed did not strictly conform to working stably during daytime hours throughout our working years,” Han said, in a news release. “This has repercussions,” she added.

Among the study's findings:

  • Individuals with volatile work hours reported worse sleep, more depressive symptoms and overall poorer health at age 50 compared to those with standard work hours.
  • The transition from stable standard hours to volatile schedules had a health impact comparable to having less than a high school education.
  • There were significant racial and gender disparities with Black Americans and those in vulnerable social positions more adversely affected by shift work and nonstandard work schedules.
The research also suggests that positive and negative impacts of work schedules on health can accumulate over one's lifetime.

“Work that is supposed to bring resources to help us sustain a decent life has now become a vulnerability to a healthy life due to the increasing precarity in our work arrangement in this increasingly unequal society,” Han said. “People with vulnerable social positions (e.g. females, Blacks, low-education) disproportionately shoulder these health consequences.”

If you're a shift worker, making behavioral adjustments may help you stay healthier by catching more zzz's. The Sleep Foundation offers these tips:

  • Aim for sleep consistency. For example, if you wake up at 5 pm for your night shift and normally go to sleep at 8 am after getting home from work, then you should also maintain this sleep-wake schedule on your days off.
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment. Light and noise exposure may be an issue for sleeping during the day. Try drawing the shades or sleeping with an eye mask if your bedroom tends to be bright during the day. Ear plugs and white noise machines can be effective at blocking outside sounds.
  • Wait a while. Rather than immediately going to bed, some shift workers prefer to stay up for a few hours after arriving home. This way, they can wake up closer to the time when they start their next night shift. For others, a split-nap schedule is more effective. This involves napping for a few hours after getting home in the morning and then sleeping for longer in the hours leading up to the next shift's start time.
  • Relax. Before going to bed, consider a hot shower or bath, meditation or another relaxing activity.
  • Think about taking melatonin. Melatonin affects our circadian rhythms and may help you to fall asleep during the day. Be sure to consult with your doctor before taking any supplements.

The study is published in PLOS ONE