Shift work can have big impact on health

Many workers skipping meals regularly
  • Deborah Condon

Almost 70% of people who work shifts regularly skip meals, while almost 80% do not get enough sleep, a new report into the habits of Irish shift workers has revealed.

The report by Safefood found that shift workers face many barriers when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle, including poor availability of food, inadequate canteen opening times and tiredness due to long working hours, which can all be dependent on the shift patterns worked.

Some 67% of workers admitted to skipping meals on work days, 78% said they get insufficient sleep, and up to one-third smoke depending on the sector they work in. This smoking rate is much higher than the smoking rate of the general population, which is around 20%.

"For this research we looked at existing studies in this area as well as surveying more than 1,000 people to better understand the factors that influence their food and related lifestyle habits while working shift hours.

"What's noticeable from the research is how skipping meals, inadequate physical activity and insufficient sleep are commonly noted by shift workers as behaviours that impact upon them," commented research lead, Dr Clare Corish, of University College Dublin.

She also noted how different workplace sectors can impact the behaviour of various workers.

"Health and social care workers have poorer access to healthier food options and often an erratic, stressful work schedule, but in general have healthier patterns of food consumption and lower rates of smoking. By comparison, the manufacturing sector has more defined work patterns and breaks and are more likely to have workplace facilities available but higher rates of smoking," she explained.

She also noted that access to unhealthy vending machines was seen as a ‘negative influence' by workers.

When it came to gender and age, men had poorer dietary habits than women and were more likely to be overweight. Meanwhile, younger workers had poorer dietary habits and consumed higher rates of alcohol than older workers.

However, older workers had poorer sleep patterns and were less physically active than younger workers.

"It has been long assumed that shift work has a negative impact on people's health and increases the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. With the publication of this research, we're beginning to address an important gap in our knowledge of both the barriers and potential public health interventions to improving the food and related lifestyle habits of people working shifts," commented Safefood CEO, Ray Dolan.

Also commenting on the research, Safefood's director of human health and nutrition, Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, said that it is clear that a number of targeted approaches are needed to address the health issues related to shift work.

"It's clear that we need to support younger and newer shift workers in order to enable them to adapt to shift hours. This will help create healthier habits they will hopefully take with them through their career.

"It is acknowledged that healthy eating advice can't follow a ‘one-size-fits-all' approach and needs to account for the specific environment of shift workers. Key issues are providing both time and facilities to eat healthily during a work shift and promoting healthy physical activity and sleep habits," she noted.

She also insisted that workplace initiatives to reduce smoking at work are needed, particularly in workplaces where there is a ‘smoking culture'.

Dr Foley-Nolan added that the role of employers in tackling these many issues ‘can't be underestimated'.

"Shift workers deserve improved eating facilities, whether that's canteens, work kitchens or healthier vending machines, and reasonable time to take breaks. Both parties have a stake in having a healthier workforce and the benefits that brings," she said.

The report, Managing Food on Shift Work, was compiled by UCD in partnership with the Dublin Institute of Technology and Ulster University.


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