Shift work: how to stay healthy while working round the clock
From eating well to finding time for exercise and a social life, here are some tips to survive the slog.
Shift work: it’s complicated. Are you “working” when you’re asleep but at work? Should you be paid for being on call when you’re at home? Recent legal cases have looked at whether a sleepover shift is “working time” (and therefore, the worker should be entitled to the national minimum wage) and there’s new research on shift workers and their health too. A recent study found that delaying meals because of working shifts can mess with your internal body clock.
But what if you can’t avoid shift work? What if your job kicks off in the evening and ends at dawn, and that’s just the way it is? Try these six ways to survive the slog.
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.
“We think this is due to changes in clocks in our metabolic tissues but not the ‘master’ clock in the brain,” said Jonathan Johnston of the University of Surrey, one of the authors of the study. 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.
“Make sure the fridge is stocked with healthy choices,” says Suzy Reading, a chartered psychologist. “One way to do this is by cooking meals in batches and reheating them through the week.” She also recommends taking pre-prepared meals with you if it’s difficult to get healthy options at work.
What you eat can make a big difference, says Chris Simon, a personal trainer. “If you want to have a high amount of energy to pull you through a shift you should include brown rice in your meal, as it contains manganese, which helps produce energy from protein and carbohydrates.” Simon suggests meals with about 3g protein, 3.5g starch (containing manganese) and around 6g of leafy greens. “This will give you a lot of energy, even at the end of your shift,” he says.
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 must be given more, says Laura Livingstone, a partner at law firm Gordon Dadds. “The health and safety legislation, which includes the working time regulations, provide a fair amount of obligations to protect shift workers in particular,” says Livingstone. “For example, night workers should work no more than eight hours in any 24-hour period.”
It’s in employers’ interests to have a healthy workforce, she adds. Night workers may also be entitled to a free health assessment.
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. “When it comes to exercise, fit it in whenever you can,” says Reading. “Any movement will do, including exercise routines on YouTube.”
Remember that exercise isn’t just about physical health, it’s about mental health too, she says. “Any movement has a potent antidepressant action, even gentle forms. So if energy is low or you are exercising before going to bed, opt for something soothing like yoga or a 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, points out Dominic Holmes, a partner at law firm Taylor Vinters. “Depending on the circumstances, workers may be deemed to be working and entitled to pay during ‘on call’ hours even if they are asleep or not actively performing duties for their employer.”
He adds that holiday pay also requires careful calculation to account for variable hourly pay and any applicable shift premiums. So check your salary is correct and that you are getting the right amount of time off.
Enjoy a social life
If you work unsocial hours, including weekends, it can be hard to fit in a social life. But stressing about it isn’t good for your mental health or your relationships, says Anna Percy-Davis, executive and careers coach at Well Aware. “When it comes to enjoying time with friends and family around awkward shift work hours, quality rather than quantity needs to be the focus,” she says.
Percy-Davis suggests finding ways to spend time together, while ensuring that those closest to you appreciate that you may be tired or your time with them is going to be limited. “This does not mean you have to act like a martyr or that you expect loads of sympathy,” she says. “It’s about making those moments when you are together fun and enough rather than stressed and guilt-inducing. Time with family and friends requires more effort when you are a shift worker but it is not impossible.”
How to sleep and unwind
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 reset the circadian rhythms keeping us awake) that’s probably not a practical year-round solution. However, good sleep is vital. So 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.