What dietary steps can you take, to help mitigate the challenges of shift work?

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    Shift work is a cornerstone of many industries, ranging from healthcare to manufacturing and hospitality. In a globalized economy with 24/7 operations the demand for employees who can work non-traditional hours has grown substantially. For many individuals, especially those in essential services like healthcare, policing, and transportation, embracing shift work is not just a choice but a necessity. 

    While it offers flexibility, it also presents challenges, including disruptions to sleep patterns, social life, and family routines. For some working shifts, due to the disruption of the sleep wake cycle, it can have an increased risk of developing metabolic disorders (1).

    However, there are changes in our diet we can undertake, at both an individual employee level and at a workplace level to minimise the adverse effects of shift work and support employee health and wellbeing.

    Fruit and vegetables

    What are some of the dietary challenges with shift work?

    We know that working irregular hours disrupts the body’s natural body-clock, which may affect eating patterns and also have a negative effect on the employees’ health. Research is showing that for those working shift it can (2, 3,4):

    • Lead to a change in their meal patterns or cause irregular eating patterns.
    • Result in employees skipping meals, which may increase snacking to compensate for the reduced intake of meals. 
    • Increase the consumption of more food, at unconventional times.
    • Result in a higher consumption of unhealthy foods.

    There are many factors that lead to these challenges including lack of time, poor availability of healthy food and tiredness, leading to choosing convenience food resulting in a poorer quality diet.

    A Safefood study based on Ireland and Northern Ireland shift workers, did observe that in some cases the dietary habits of shift workers were the same as the general population e.g. consumption of fruit and vegetables. Differences were also noted across the occupational sectors with those in the manufacturing sectors showing a lower rate of skipping meals, possibly down to the work environment factors (4). 


    What are the mitigation steps I can take as an employee?

    While changing the pattern we work may not be an option, there are steps that we can take in our dietary behaviours, to help mitigate the potential impacts of working shift. Some of these include (5):

    1. Ensuring regular meal patterns – Aiming to consume your main meal earlier in your day e.g. before a shift starts rather than during the night. Having a lighter rather than a heavy meal 1-2 hours before bed, so your sleep is not impacted (5).
    2. Focusing on diet quality – Aiming for meal and snacks that are higher fibre options and including a source of animal or plant-based protein.
    3. Staying hydrated – While water is best, if you are reaching for caffeine-based drinks remember that the recommended limit of caffeine for adults in 24 hours = 400 mg. Trying to avoid having more than 200mg in one sitting (6).

    One of the best ways to ensure that we eat well, is being organised. Therefore, making a shopping list and doing the shop on your days off will help to ensure that we have healthier options available for meals and snacks. Batch cooking can also be helpful, portioning out and freezing for when needed. 

    Lastly bring snacks, meals and a bottle of water with you, so when you have your break, you have an option that is going to help nourish and hydrate you through the rest of your shift.

    What are the workplace based mitigation steps?

    We know that the workplace influences diet, where approx. 60% of an employee’s daily intake is eaten during working hours. As employers there are steps that can be taken in the workplace to provide an environment supportive of healthy eating for those working shift. 

    Several recommendations were made in the Safefood report (4):

    • Provision of reasonable times for eating and hydrating, during each shift with access to facilities for safely storing and preparing meals and snacks.
    • Provision of facilities for purchasing healthy foods, either in a canteen setting or healthy vending machine with healthy options. 
    • Provision of dietary guidance to encourage regular meal patterns including specific information on meal planning and time management.
    Fruit and vegetables

    A key challenge to understanding the impact of shift work on health, is the lack of data and robust longer-term studies. The influence of lifestyle factors like physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption also have an effect on sleep, so therefore need consideration. In the interim though, the steps above are a great place to start for both employees and employers in supporting the health of workers.

    References:

    1. Ulhôa, M.A. et al. (2015) ‘Shift work and endocrine disorders’, International Journal of Endocrinology, 2015, pp. 1–11. doi:10.1155/2015/826249.
    2. Souza, R.V. et al. (2018) ‘The effect of shift work on eating habits: A systematic review’, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 45(1), pp. 7–21. doi:10.5271/sjweh.3759.
    3. GUPTA, C.C. et al. (2019) ‘The factors influencing the eating behaviour of shiftworkers: What, when, where and why’, Industrial Health, 57(4), pp. 419–453. doi:10.2486/indhealth.2018-0147.
    4. 2016) Managing food on shift work, An exploration of the eating patterns, related lifestyle behaviours and experiences of shift workers on the island of Ireland. rep. Safefood.
    5. BDA (2022) Nutrition and shift work, British Dietetic Association (BDA). Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/nutrition-shift-work.html .
    6. British Nutrition Foundation (2021) Healthy diet and lifestyle tips for shift workers. Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/media/gaklfhx0/shift-workers.pdf.