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Why being a shift worker could prove bad for your health

A new report into the habits of people from Northern Ireland who work shift patterns has revealed that two out of three skip meals on work days, while eight out of 10 are not getting enough sleep.

The findings are from a new study by the all-Ireland health and lifestyle body Safefood which also showed that in certain sectors one out of three shift workers were smokers.

Fifteen per cent of the population here are shift workers, mostly concentrated in hospitality, health and social care and manufacturing.

And many of those working shifts told Safefood that being employed in this way has had impacted on their health; they cited lack of breaks, poor availability of food, inadequate canteen opening times and tiredness as barriers to a healthy lifestyle.

We catch up with three people working in the affected sectors to see why shift work makes being healthy more challenging.

'My husband and I are like ships that pass in the night'

Joanne Oaks (41), a nurse in a private nursing home, lives in Dromore with husband John (41), a graphic designer. They have two children, Jamie (2) and Kaiden (16 months). She says:

All my working life has involved shifts. Currently, I work three set nights in the nursing home. While I don't have any problem sleeping during the day I feel constantly tired as I don't get enough sleep.

When I come home after working at night, I need to unwind, so I will watch some TV and then go to bed about 9am, sleeping until about 2pm when I get up. I do some housework then make dinner before my husband comes home from work.

Because John and I work different hours we are like ships that pass each other in the night, and I would love more quality time with him. When I'm working nights, I will hand the children over to him at 6.30pm when he gets in, then we text each other later on to try and catch up. When I do get a day at home I try to spend as much time with the family as possible, but I am usually really tired and tend to fall asleep when the children go to bed.

Regular mealtimes can also be a challenge, as it's difficult to sit down and eat a meal during the night - I'm not ready for it. I do occasionally take food into work such as a salad or noodles but I still end up snacking on biscuits, chocolate bars and filling up on energy drinks which are all full of sugar.

I tend to spend my break on night shift drinking coffee to keep me going.

While my time with John is suffering, we are sacrificing that for now, so I can spend more time with Jamie and Kaiden. When I'm with the kids I will go out and it gives me an opportunity to meet other mums, too. Luckily I have good friends, some of whom also work shifts - so we all understand how the other is feeling.

When I've had to cover day shifts at the home, I've found it a great place. It's really nice seeing the patients in their day-to-day routine rather than while they're asleep.

I know I won't work shifts forever but it suits us at the minute as the children are so young. Eventually, though, I would like to go back to working during the day.

While I wouldn't mind working the odd night in the future I wouldn't want to do it on a permanent basis."

‘Now that I have a family a 9-5 job would be a dream’

Dan Dunn (36) is a barista and a barman. He lives in Londonderry with partner Clare Duddy (30), a classroom assistant, and their 17-month-old daughter Cait. He says:

I started working in a bar when I was 17, so I have always been used to working late nights and at the weekend. In the coffee shop I work from 7.30am to 3pm, 9.30am to 5pm or 12pm to 9.30pm, so it is all different shifts.

While I don’t mind the hours, working this way has had an effect on my weight.

I tend not to eat properly as I work across tea and lunch times — and I’m surrounded by temptation.

At the moment, I am training and trying to get into shape and lose weight, so I am conscious about what I eat. This means I need to prep my food more carefully and take protein shakes and healthy meals instead of crisps and snacks.

Sleep isn’t a problem, but it does take some time to unwind at the end of a late shift. I’m usually not ready for bed until after 3am.

Then I get up at six in the morning to start training, so I’m shattered after only three hours sleep.

Working the shifts also affects the amount of time I can spend with my family — that definitely suffers.

Cait (right) is up early and ready to go first thing in the morning and maybe I haven’t got to bed until after 3am, so I’m exhausted.

I try and make Clare and Cait a priority and we always do family things on a Sunday.

As a couple we also try to have a date night once a week when Cait goes to bed.

While I don’t mind shift work as I’m accustomed to it, now that I have a family a nine-to-five job would be a dream.”

‘I spent all my time waiting to start work’

Alan Henderson (29), from Ballyclare, works as a production supervisor in an engineering firm. He is married to Barbara (27), a teacher. He says:

I have worked shifts for years in different jobs so I know all about the effects it has on you and your health. One of the prerequisites of getting married earlier this year was no more shift work.

Starting married life and, hopefully a family at some stage, I didn’t want to be out working all evening with Barbara at home on her own. So now I work during the day and I wouldn’t go back to shift patterns for all the money in the world.

Previously one of my shifts involved working from 3.45pm to midnight — and it was horrendous. I was living with my parents at the time and didn’t get home about 1.30am when everyone was in bed.

I had to be really quiet coming in but wasn’t ready for bed and needed to unwind.

However, there wasn’t much I could do without disturbing my parents. Then when I was sleeping they were getting up and making breakfast and the noise often woke me up.

When they left the postman would arrive, then the bin man, dogs barking, children playing in the street — all the noise of everyone else’s morning routine would stop me getting back to sleep.

As a result I was always tired and sleep deprived. While that was the worst aspect of working shifts, it affected my life in other ways, too.

I didn’t get enough exercise as there was no one around at the same time as me to do things, such as go for a run or to the gym. Finding the motivation to exercise on your own was difficult.

Again socially, there wasn’t anyone around to do things with when I was free — and, I was always too tired. It felt as though I spent all my time waiting to start work.

My diet was awful too as I started work between meal times. When I had my first break at work I snacked on chocolate or crisps.

If I wanted to do something with Barbara or friends on a Friday night I had to take a night off which ate into my holiday leave which most people didn’t understand.

People who work 9am-5pm Monday to Friday tend to take it for granted and have no understanding of what it’s like to work shifts.

It can be very isolating to come and go at different times to everyone else. Many shift workers find their only group of friends are those who work the same time as they do.”

How you can stay healthy when working unsociable hours

  • Make sure you exercise: physical activity is good for your general wellbeing and it will set you up for a decent ‘pre-nightshift’ sleep. Consider going swimming, running, the gym or even do loads of housework
  • Drink water and eat well: the meals, snacks and fluids a shift workers selects before and during the night shift can have a significant effect on energy, stamina, and performance levels. Make sure you bring real food to work, not just convenient junk food, and a big bottle of water
  • Plan your caffeine intake: just like with day shift, caffeinating during the second half of your shift reduces your chance of sleeping when you get home 
  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible: wear dark glasses home, and invest in black-out curtains; or an eye mask. Avoid artificial light — constantly checking your phone or tablet because you can’t sleep will make it worse
  • Try and cut out noise: invest in ear plugs
  • Avoid alcohol: don’t use alcohol to help you sleep. It is a sleep inducer but it will disrupt your REM sleep which impacts on how rested and functional you are on waking
  • Avoid watching television in bed: not only does television in the bedroom keep you awake, but there are indications that watching television before bed actually disrupts sleep cycles

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