In: Health

Shift work and your health

One in eight workers regularly works the night shift. Some like it; for others it’s a necessity. Either way, the list of physical and mental health issues that can arise from working permanent nights or variable shift patterns is grim. Some of the issues arise after years of shift work; some (including high blood pressure) can be seen within just 10 days. Some will reverse when shift working stop; others (such as sleep disruption) can continue indefinitely.

But all is not lost – there are steps shift workers can take to minimise these risks, but first, let’s look at three of the big issues in more detail.

The end of shift
1910: Great Western Railway Workers, Swindon, leaving Rodbourne Road entrance (William Hooper photo)

Health risks

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Stomach problems
  • Depression
  • Risk of accident or injury
  • Sleep
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor diet
  • Reduced fertility in women
  • Blood pressure
  • Disrupted body clock
  • Chronic fatigue

Sleep

Very few people are able to function at their best on insufficient, quality sleep.  In a 2013 survey, only 30% of people routinely had 7-9 hours of sleep each night – the recommended amount.  That means that 70% of people are walking around with unnecessary potential for food cravings, depressive tendencies, irritability, constipation, poor concentration, feeling run down, aches and pains, and stress or anxiety to boot.

They may be surviving on insufficient sleep (people get very good at convincing themselves they can deal with it or catch up later), but how much better would it feel to thrive and not just survive?

Shift workers are more likely than most to suffer from lack of sleep due to disturbed sleep (e.g. where you’re sleeping during the day and waking up at the slightest thing) and loss of sleep (perhaps between shift patterns or trying to lead a “normal” life with family and friends at the same time).

Obesity

Diet and exercise are key in maintaining a healthy body weight, and both of these are compromised with shift working.  Diet is affected by meal timing around shifts, grabbing fast meals, snacking, etc.  Finding time to exercise is often a challenge too – particularly if you play team sports.

There is a third trigger for obesity: hormones.  Shift work has been shown to reduce levels of leptin, one of the hormones that regulates our appetite.  Lower leptin means we are more likely to eat to excess.

The risks from obesity include heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.  These weight-related conditions have been linked together under the banner of “metabolic syndrome” and research shows the incidence of metabolic syndrome in night shift workers is three times that of everyone else.

Depression

Mental health is thankfully getting a lot of attention in the press these days, but did you realise that shift workers are more likely to suffer from depression and other mood disorders?

Night workers have been shown to have significantly lower levels of serotonin (a brain chemical which helps regulate our mood) compared to day workers.

Support networks are known to play an important role in mental health, but those on irregular shift patterns often find it difficult to keep relationships going, other than with colleagues.

9 steps you can take to improve your health on shifts

1. Eat well

Focus on nutrient dense foods (fruits and vegetables, protein, good fats, fibre) and avoid processed white carbs (bread, cake, biscuits).  Give your body a fighting chance to deal with shift working.

2. Exercise regularly

Avoid exercising before going to bed; try exercising before the shift starts.

3. Prioritise sleep

Aim for 7-9 hours every day, get blackout blinds or use an eye mask to restrict light, limit caffeine and alcohol, no large meals immediately before bed, stay on the same sleep pattern on days off, slowly adjust bed time as shifts change, limit daylight after shift by wearing sunglasses.

4. Stable shift patterns

If you have the option, consider stable shift patterns to avoid the jet lag effect of changing.

5. Meal times

If you’re working the night shift, eat little and often during the shift with a moderate breakfast after.  For afternoon/evening shifts, eat before your shift.

6. Hydrate

Drink plenty of water.  Even 3% dehydration affects brain function and as shift workers are already 25-30% more likely to injury themselves, this is not a good thing.

7. Social life

Plan it to ensure it happens and fits in with your eating and sleeping arrangements.

8. Quiet time

Leave time to relax, take up a hobby, read, listen to music, walk the dog.

9. Monitor your health

Get a blood pressure monitor (£20-100) and keep a track of it.  The gold standard is 115/75 or lower, but if it’s 140/90 or higher, see your doctor.  You should also keep an eye on your waistline.