Many people are employed in shift work across the UK. We live now in a very much 24/7 society with fewer restraints on working hours and flexibility actively encouraged. However, it’s long been the belief that shift work can be damaging to health and wellbeing. Shift work is defined as employment that starts prior to 8am or finishes after 6pm. It can also relate to work that creates a change to normal sleep patterns. Extended hours are periods of work that last longer than 8 hours and that can lead to a reduction in sleep.

Aside from what many deem to be the detrimental effects of shift working, we look at ways to keep alert and awake whilst at work. It is possible to remain healthy when working shifts or extended hours but workers should be ready to make adjustments to their normal routines and be aware of the implications of not getting enough sleep and not taking care of their bodies.

Put some sleep in the bank

Your performance can diminish drastically after being awake in excess of 16 hours. After 17 hours behavior can be similar to that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 50mg per 100ml. Indeed at the legal alcohol level of 80mg the possibility of an accident increases threefold, translate that to your performance at work and the importance of maintaining sleep levels is obvious.

Shift work dictates that at some point you will be required to work at times when naturally your body should be resting. The disruption to your body clock can lead to fatigue and subsequently accidents, which in some shift work environments are most common between midnight and dawn. It is calculated that on average, night shift workers lose 1 – 1.5 hours’ sleep in every 24 hour period. Although you can never catch up on sleep, two consecutive nights sleep with a normal day in-between will amount to some form of compensation.

How employers can help

There are a number of ways that employers can look to ensure that shift workers remain healthy and alert. Talking to workers about balancing different needs and evaluating the effect of current arrangements will help to highlight problems and hopefully find solutions. Other ways employers can help include –

  • Ensuring regular breaks during shifts
  • Ensure good and effective shift supervision
  • Where applicable and possible make food available
  • Be aware of statistical time hot spots when fatigue is most likely and possible accidents occur as a result
  • Provide applicable support to staff
  • Identify periods when staff may need longer time off for sleep compensation

Tips for employees

Employees who work long hours or who work shifts can take a number of steps to ensure that they can cope with the impact on their body clock.

Tips for the workplace include –

  • Research the best things to eat and when
  • Make the most of your breaks, using them to rest and recover
  • Find out how to recognise the onset of fatigue
  • Make opportunities to stand up and walk around
  • Listen to the radio
  • Wash your hands and wet your face to stay fresh. Stay cool and when warmth is required direct it to your feet.

Things to do at home to help you prepare for shift working –

  • Make sure family, friends and neighbours know your shift schedule
  • If sleeping during the day keep the bedroom cool and dark, enable the answerphone and keep your ring tone low.
  • After a night shift – sleep long enough to become refreshed allowing for a full normal night’s sleep later
  • Exercise regularly but not strenuously close to bedtime
  • Control your diet paying particular attention to the effect alcohol and caffeine can have on sleep. Healthy snacks like fruit juice, fruit and raw vegetables are good.
  • If getting to sleep becomes a problem explore natural and personal routine solutions before resorting to sleeping pills.

Although some reports paint a pretty grim picture of the effects of shift working this needn’t be the case. By following some of the points above and doing your own research you will be able to cancel out many of the potential negatives. Above all take note of the warnings and indicators that your body sends you and act on them. Your body will naturally tell you when you are tired, need to rest, eat or take a drink. Shift work may be the best option for you and your family and can be safe, healthy and rewarding.