How to stay healthy when doing shift work

Shift work isn’t without its complications and staying healthy can be a challenge. It’s tricky to eat a healthy diet when you’re working different hours to everyone else, for example, and most people don’t feel like hitting the gym after a ten-hour shift. 

A recent study found that delaying meals because of working shifts can mess with your internal body clock and further studies have shown that a lack of sleep and ability to socialise (as friends and family have different working hours) takes it’s strain on shift workers. But there are ways to survive the slog. For those with a job that kicks off in the evening and ends at dawn, here are our top tips…

Eat well

When the clock strikes midnight, your body tells you to sleep, not to eat lunch, which is why shift work can play havoc with your dietary health. In fact, new research shows that delaying meal times or having meals at irregular times can affect your internal body rhythms. The study, published in the journal Current Biology found that a five-hour delay in meal times causes a five-hour delay in blood glucose rhythms. 

The authors of the study concluded this could be due to changes in clocks in our metabolic tissues but not the ‘master’ clock in the brain. It’s easy to let your blood sugar levels dip too low – particularly on busy shifts – so the trick is to plan ahead and organise what to eat during and around shifts.

Top tips: Make sure the fridge is stocked with healthy choices; batch simple meals and reheat them during the week; eat food with high energy that’s properly released over your shift, such as brown rice, protein (such as fish, chicken, tofu and pulses) and leafy greens. 

Take breaks

All shift workers should be given adequate rest breaks (at least 20 minutes if the working day is longer than six hours) and those who doing monotonous or hazardous work or working at particular hours of the day/night must be given more. For example, night workers should work no more than eight hours in any 24-hour period.

Top tips: Make sure you get the breaks you are entitled to and then take them.

Exercise

It’s unlikely that you will finish a night shift and want to head straight to the gym for a workout. However, you may want to plan a few activity sessions around your shifts, whether that’s a quick swim before you start work or a long walk on your day off.

Remember that exercise isn’t just about physical health, it’s about mental health too.

Top tip: If your energy levels are low, try a session of yoga (you can do this at home, with a session on YouTube) or go for a short walk.

Ensure you are properly paid

Staff who work at least three hours during the night are night workers and should qualify for the national minimum wage and holiday pay. However, irregular working hours can complicate how those rights work in practice, such as whether you can be paid while you are on call but asleep.

Top tips: check you are being paid correctly and that your pay includes holiday pay, if applicable.

Enjoy your time off

If you work unsocial hours, including weekends, it can be hard to fit in a social life. Quality rather than quantity is key here. Find ways to spend time together, without others expecting too much of you (if you’re tired after a shift, for example, you may not want to party).

Top tip: Plan ahead (as soon as you have your working schedule) and if you know you’re going to be tired, suggest a trip to the cinema or dinner (saves you cooking) as a relaxed way to socialise.

Sleeping and winding down

Sleeping during the day can be a nightmare with noise and light (ear phones and eye pads can help), and can have long-term effects. While you could try resetting your body clock by sleeping under the stars on your nights off (a study early this year suggested that camping can help re-set circadian rhythms that keep us awake) that’s probably not a practical year-round solution. However, good sleep is vital.

Top tip: try sleeping in a darkened room (with lined curtains), drinking chamomile or lavender tea, using an app for meditation to help you wind down and switching off your smartphone.

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