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Shift Work Puts Health at Risk

Most people feel out of sorts if their sleep or eating patterns are disrupted even occasionally. But for shift workers this is the norm and can have a detrimental impact on their health according to a new report authored by Dr Clare Corish, Associate Professor in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science.

An estimated 15% of the workforce on the island of Ireland works shifts and Dr Corish’s 32-county study: Managing Food on Shift Work , was undertaken on behalf of safefood in conjunction with colleagues from the Dublin Institute of Technology and Ulster University. It looked at the impact of shift working on the eating habits and related lifestyle behaviours of 1,300 employees in three sectors – accommodation and food services, health and social care and manufacturing. “Shift work results in people’s routines being frequently and severely disrupted,” says Dr Corish.

“Skipping meals is common but this is compensated for by an increase in snacking. The problem with this substitution can be weight gain especially when combined with the poorer levels of physical activity that typically go with shift work. The other major problem is lack of sleep. Only a third of shift workers get adequate rest.”

The report shows that the majority of shift workers do not meet healthy eating guidelines on fruit, vegetables, dairy and wholegrain consumption.

Only 44% of shift workers met recommended weekly levels of physical activity and there were higher rates of smoking (30%) compared with general population rates (19.5%) in the Republic of Ireland

However, when their diet was compared with the daily intake of the adult population as a whole, shift workers’ dietary patterns were actually no worse. Where their erratic working hours had a more serious impact were on their levels of physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption.

“Only 44% of shift workers met recommended weekly levels of physical activity and there were higher rates of smoking (30%) compared with general population rates (19.5%) in the Republic of Ireland,” Dr Corish says. “The perceived effects of alcohol consumption were mixed, with both increased and decreased consumption being reported. But of those who drink alcohol, a quarter reported ‘high risk’ drinking which means exceeding the recommended maximum weekly intake.”

Age and gender also influence the dietary and lifestyle behaviours of shift workers. Young workers appear to suffer most with poor dietary, activity and sleeping patterns. Men are more likely to eat badly, be overweight and to have sleep problems while women are more likely to be high-risk drinkers. The other major influencing factor is sector related. The health and social care and accommodation and food sectors come off worst with erratic and unreliable break times, uncertainty around finishing times and poor facilities to store food or prepare meals while at work. By contrast, those in the manufacturing sector benefited from better structured work patterns, regular breaks, more clearly defined workloads and better facilities.


“There are both intrinsic and extrinsic factors at play when it comes to how well individuals cope with shift work,” Dr Corish says. “By intrinsic we mean a person’s resilience and their motivation to change. By extrinsic we mean factors such as work schedules and the absence in the workplace of a canteen serving healthy eating options but the presence of vending machines offering only high fat and high sugar content snacks.

“What we hope people will take from the report is that they as individuals must take responsibility for their own wellbeing by getting organised and bringing healthy food to work and having healthy meals when they get home. Physical activity needs to be included not least because it improves sleep, so a walk or a run before going to bed is a good idea,” she says.

“Then at an organisational level employers have a responsibility to provide the structures, supports, facilities and breaks that people need,” Dr Corish adds. “For example, encouraging regular meal patterns by providing somewhere to buy or prepare healthy eating options. A small fridge and somewhere to heat up a meal can make a big difference. Thirdly, there is the issue around how shift work is structured. For example introducing a more natural rotation where people move from morning to afternoon to night shifts instead of going from morning to night every few days.

Ultimately it is in an organisation’s interests to make these changes, as stressed employees are less productive and more likely to be sick and off work.”

Dr. Clare Corish was in conversation with Olive Keogh, a contributor to the Irish Times

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of UCD Today , the university magazine.

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