Shift Work Can Be Bad for Employee Health Print

QR77 radioListen to my monthly radio program with Angela Kokott, host of Calgary Today for our segment, “You are what you eat” to get the goods on healthy eating.

Listen to episode 71 here.

How nutrition can help shift workers battle health, productivity & weight.

It is hard to manage health, productivity and weight management with today’s demanding work and family life commitments, landscape of unhealthy convenience foods, and short window of time to fit in enough sleep and physical activity.  Toss in the additional stressors of shift work, and the challenge can become even bigger.

Why should employers and HR managers be especially concerned about shift workers?

stressed manShift workers have been shown to have a higher risk of sleep loss, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.  Shift work has also been linked to more digestive issues (nausea, heartburn, constipation and diarrhea) depression, stress, and relationship issues.  Shift workers are also more likely to struggle with drug and alcohol addictions and safety issues such as accidents and injury.  They can also suffer with more fatigue, lower concentration, and reduced productivity.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the most common shift work professions include:

  • Production, transportation, and material moving (mechanics, repairers, construction workers, machine operators, truck drivers, assemblers, inspectors and equipment cleaners)
  • Technical, sales and administration (salespersons, retail workers and administrative support)
  • Managerial and professional (executives, computer scientists and teachers);
  • Other services (healthcare support, food, cleaning, personal and private household)
  • Protective services (emergency medical services workers, police and firefighters)
  • Healthcare services (residents and on-call physicians and nurses).

These professions require added workplace wellness and safety support to improve employee health and safety and reduce company bottom line expenses.

How might shift work influence health, productivity and my weight?

The reason shift work may be bad for your health is twofold.  It can firstly be related to the influence on our biology itself, and secondly related to changes in our lifestyle habits.

On a biologic level, shift work influences our circadian rhythm, which is the physical, mental and behavioral changes that take place in a 24-hour period which are tied to lightness and darkness.   If you disrupt the circadian rhythm, it can disrupt our overall energy level, metabolism, digestion, cardiovascular system, hormones, and immunity.

Shift work typically negatively influences our lifestyle habits since habit formation is hard when your schedule constantly changes.  It is also difficult to keep track of what and how much food is eaten with a fluctuating schedule.  Shift work can also be isolating and a challenge to participate in social activities, family meals and scheduled physical activity.

What are the top nutrition strategies that can help shift workers?

Examining nutrition is one of the most critical strategies that will influence the health, productivity and weight management of shift workers.  Here are some top strategies to get started:

1.  Plan an eating schedule for each of your shifts.

Plan to eat within one hour of waking and then schedule meals and snacks every 3-5 hours until you go to bed.  This will mean that for most people they will eat between 3-6 times per day. 

For example if your shift is 11pm to 7am and you wake up at 4pm, then your eating schedule may looks something like this:

By 5pm Wake-up Meal
8-10 pm Pre-shift Meal
12-2 am Work Snack
4-6 am Work Meal
7-8 am Bedtime Snack

2.  Ensure meals have both carbohydrates AND protein.

Carbohydrates provide the brain and muscles with energy while protein is key for satiety and fullness.  Balance your meals with 3 things (grains/starches, veggies/fruits and a source of protein).  Balance your snacks with at least 2 things (veggies/fruits/grains/starches and a source of protein)

For free meal planning ideas and snack ideas visit the resources section of our website here: https://www.healthstandnutrition.com/resources/

3.  Curb caffeine in the middle of your shift.

Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as eight hours, so decrease coffee, tea and other caffeine sources from the middle of your shift onward.

4.  Watch alcohol intake.

Despite alcohol initially making you sleepy, it can hinder entering into the deep restorative stages of sleep.

5.  Avoid large meals late into your shift.

Taking in lots of food and fluid before bed can cause indigestion and make it difficult to fall asleep, as well as cause you to wake up to urinate frequently at night.

6.  Don’t go to bed starved.

If you are chronically dieting, carb deprived and simply not eating enough, your sleep will be disturbed. Seek help from a registered dietitian to create a food plan that achieves a good balance of nourishment for health and weight management.

What are some other strategies that are useful to improve my ability to cope and achieve health if I am a shift worker?

Talk to your doctor. Ask your physician for a referral to a sleep medicine physician who can help you create a healthy plan for “sleep hygiene” or practical and medical solutions for getting enough sleep, falling asleep quickly and staying asleep.

Get help for emotional health. Give yourself enough time to truly unwind before bed. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, it can be difficult to get enough quality or quantity of sleep. Work with a registered psychologist and your physician to process and strategize feeling better and getting the help you need.

Assess when you exercise. Research shows exercise before bed can make it difficult to fall asleep, so you may need to move physical activity to another time.

Power down stimulating activities. Turn off smartphones, computers and television at least 30 minutes before going to bed. Take the television out of your bedroom.

Click here for a printer-friendly PDF of this article

About Andrea Holwegner

CEO, Registered Dietitian, Counseling Practice Director & Professional Speaker

Andrea the «Chocoholic Nutritionist» is founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. since 2000. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education....Read more

Success stories

"I am a psychologist in private practice and it is very important to me that my clients have the best care with other health care professionals. For that reason Health Stand Nutrition is my only source for exceptional Dietitians. Andrea and her team provide highly knowledgeable, compassionate, and real world support to my clients who require assistance with food lifestyle. I trust my clients to them and you would be in excellent hands making them part of your health care team."
Adele Fox, Psychologist
“This is the first time I feel satisfied; my cravings have diminished dramatically and I have a whole new relationship with food. I am eating guilt-free for the first time in my life. My energy has also dramatically increased and I feel great!
Rhonda Jenkins, Nutrition Counseling Client
“The Dieticians at Health Stand Nutrition help you to take action on the science behind eating well by making it practical, understandable, and fun. Their office is cozy and not at all clinical or intimidating. I felt like I was sitting down with a really smart, caring friend who wanted to help me make the best choices for my lifestyle and food preferences. Andrea and her team really are the best in the business.”
Marty Avery, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I have come to think of the program as a one stop shopping excursion for everything one needs to know about creating a joyous relationship with food and our bodies. In a single word, the course has gifted me with freedom from the punishing rigidity of disordered eating, old stories that never were true, and body dysmorphia that did nothing but make me lose sight of a body that has done everything I've asked, despite my careless dismissal of her needs. Now when I look in the mirror I find myself shifting from harsh criticism to gentle gratitude.”
Lynn Haley, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“I spent 3 hours when first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I learned more from my Dietitian about food in those 3 hours than I had learned in all the years of my life. I also love the newsletter, there is always something to learn.”
Peter Whitehead, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I didn’t realize how strong my “diet mentality” was, and all the rules I had in my head about food. I was in a cycle of reward/punish/binge/cringe. I booked with your business very reluctantly, on the repeated advice of my doctor, to get my slowly rising cholesterol levels in check. I thought I knew everything about food, and my behaviour with food, but I was definitely re-schooled. My weight is creeping down, I feel good about my diet, exercise, body image, and lifestyle.”
Amy Floyd, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Thanks Andrea for an amazing presentation, I have heard all positive remarks from attendees and the evaluations show the same sentiment. It is really gratifying when a speaker does their “homework” and weaves in our profession’s day to day challenges within their content, you did an awesome job of this! You truly took the “die” out of Dietician! Your information on healthy eating and simplifying how we can work towards this as we are all so busy really hit the mark. Andrea connects very well with her audience; she is energetic, funny, and very approachable.”
Carole Ann LaGrange, Transfusion Medicine Safety Officer

Event Planner for Laboratory Diagnostic Imaging Annual Event

I am a family physician who sees patients with a myriad of eating concerns – from wanting to know how to plan healthy meals for active families, to weight loss, to eating disorders, and so on. I cannot recommend the Health Stand team highly enough. I have worked with (and been to!) other Dieticians in the past and too often find that they just ask for food logs and make suggestions that are easily obtained online or in books. The Dieticians at Health Stand offer much more than just telling clients what they “should be eating.” In contrast, the team really does more of a counselling practice, and they work hard to help their clients learn more about why their eating habits may be off track and not optimal for them, as well as helping people to effect change at a deep level that, most importantly, is sustainable for lifetime health.”
Dr. Deb Putnam, Family Physician

Nutrition Counseling Client & Referring Physician

“I am a busy mom, with kids in high level sports, working full-time downtown, and running our home acreage outside the City. I now have the knowledge and tools I need to plan for and manage the chaos of meal planning.”
Gillian Gray, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“As a construction company, we select speakers who can relate to our industry and its employees. Andrea’s message was delivered with humor and empathy. She makes people feel as though they can make changes without leaving behind every favorite food. Andrea focused her presentation on healthy eating as a way to keep energy high throughout the day. This message and the way it was delivered resonated with our predominantly male, blue collar culture. I would highly recommend Andrea as a speaker for groups such as ours. She will get your message across without alienating anyone in your audience – which is a huge hurdle when trying to introduce a wellness program in the workplace!”
Stephanie Wood, HR and Safety Manager

Fisher Construction Group, Burlington, WA

I found my Dietitian warm, funny, and skilled at teaching nutrition concepts without the overwhelm. The general approach of each session was to mix science with emotion, which was exceedingly effective in helping me shift my perspective on food from one of anxiety to one of joy and curiosity.”
Erin Kronstedt, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Excellent presentation! What a refreshing change to have a speaker inspire rather than “lecture” about nutrition. Your captivating stories, tips and overall approach to healthy eating uplifts and puts people at ease. It was great to hear we don’t need to strive to be perfect eaters, and that small changes really can make a difference in how we feel and in our health. Thanks to Andrea, we have solutions to our everyday nutrition challenges that can actually work in real life!”
Tina Tamagi, Human Resources

ARC Resources Ltd.

“Had I not joined this course I would have struggled with no focus, low energy, and mindless eating. Andrea is an excellent teacher and motivator. This is not just a course, it is a nutrition club with mentorship, support, and connections with other people with similar situations.”
Lorri Lawrence, Pursuit of Healthiness online course participant

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