Working together, improving lives

March 2023

The Effects Of Shift Work And How To Combat Them

Most people working in the Health and Social care industry only work shifts, it is extremely rare to find a role in this field that has a 9-5 option. And although shift-work provides many people with convenience, for example, to facilitate family commitments like looking after children, or perhaps because they work better later in the day than first thing in the morning, shift patterns can take their toll. In this edition of the Dean Healthcare blog, we’re looking at the ways you can manage the effects of working shifts.

Research by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) over a period of ten years found that sleep, diet and cognition were all affected more than when compared with non-shift workers. Let’s take a look at this in more detail.

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Unsociable working hours can have a negative effect on the amount of ‘good’ sleep a person can have. ‘Good’ sleep is considered to be uninterrupted high quality sleep that lasts around seven hours a day but because we are accustomed to sleeping during the night, for those who work during this time, their unusual or irregular sleeping patterns can cause issues with the bodies circadian rhythms. This is a biological process that can affect our mental or physical wellbeing when disturbed. So, what can be done to ensure better sleep, whether during the day or at night?

  • Although it is recommended to sleep at least 7 hours a day without breaks, for those who struggle to do this it is suggested that the addition of a 30-60 minute nap throughout the day can allow the body to recoup and recover enough. It improves relaxation, reduces fatigue and increases alertness when awake.

  • Winding down before going to bed, such as reading a book or using light therapy. This fixates the brain into a relaxed state which can induce falling asleep more easily and for longer periods of time.

  • Avoiding using devices that emit blue-light can help too, this is because our brains perceive this light as daytime and subsequently produces less melatonin – the hormone that helps us wind down before bed.
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There are a number of reasons shift work can have an effect on our diet, but the main one is lack of routine. The absence of structure when eating can cause low levels of energy, decrease muscle mass and increase the ability to gain weight. Furthermore, those who work during the night were found to skip meals more which directly affects metabolism rates (how quickly our body converts food and drink into energy) and how our body burns less energy and fewer calories as a result. What should we consider if we want to improve our diet whilst working shift patterns?

  • Avoid foods that provide instant energy boosts such as chocolate or sweets, yes they can provide you with a quick rush, but ultimately you’ll feel more lethargic shortly after consuming them.

  • Heavier foods are more likely to promote tiredness and fatigue, consider eating lighter, more healthy meals more frequently throughout the shift. This can also help assist your sleep routine as heavier foods are found to keep you awake while your body takes longer to digest them.

  • Don’t rely on caffeine. Many people opt out of a healthy snack or even a meal when working shifts, in favour of their favourite coffee. Similarly, with sugary goods, caffeine will provide you with energy, but it does not compare to the energy released from eating a balanced meal, which lasts longer and promotes better performance.
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IOSH’s study of the effects of shift work on mental and physical health also found that the results of neuropsychological tests showed a clear association between shift work and cognitive performance. Although it is unclear how shift-work ultimately reduces our brains ability to perform psycho-associated tasks there are ways we can promote better cognition functions.

  • Take care of your mental health. It goes without saying that your mental health has the ability to impact almost every bodily factor. Good mental health has been shown to reduce levels of stress which can increase memory-making skills, problem-solving and reduce ‘brain-fog’ – the feeling of sluggish, fuzzy thinking

  • Have fun! Studies have also shown that people who are more socially active or take time to indulge in personal hobbies, play games, an instrument, read a book or learn a language are far more likely to retain information, think quickly and perform better in tasks.
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The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health did concede that not all evidence provided in its study was conclusive, however there is a clear correlation between those working shifts and those who do not and its disruption to our body clock, the main takeaway from the information presented above should be that an active and healthy mind and body can indeed decrease the effects shift work can have on the body.

If you want more tips on managing a busy lifestyle and working in Health and Social care, follow us on your favourite social media channel- we post on subjects like these throughout the year!