While much of America’s work force is in a 9-to-5-kind-of-groove, there are a great number of people–an estimated 22 million Americans–who work night and afternoon shifts. They’re up in the wee hours of the morning doing things like baking bread, driving truck, doing maintenance, patrolling neighbourhoods, keeping production lines ticking along, fighting fires, taking care of patients, stocking shelves and serving customers at 24-hour establishments. The downside of their schedule is that their sleep, and in turn, their health suffers.
The scientific data amassed over the past few decades doesn’t paint a rosy picture of health and wellness for most shift workers. For starters, their erratic sleep-wake cycle causes lower insulin resistance and they face an increased risk of diabetes (as much as 42%). They also face a higher incidence of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, ulcers and reproductive issues. Another study determined that working shifts harmed brain health because of disrupted circadian rhythms.
The good news is that the damage can be reversed over time.
“Because shift workers’ schedules are always changing, and in particular their sleep schedules, it’s imperative they take a proactive approach to their health,” says Amanda Hudye, president and founder, SleepWell Consulting Inc., a Canadian company that develops customized health and fatigue management programs for corporations and individuals.
“When our bodies are consistently short on sleep, often our immune system is compromised. We are four times more likely to catch the common cold or flu. Our reaction time is delayed; our cognitive functioning is also impaired when we are not reaching our basal sleep need (the individual amount of sleep necessary for operate at our best).”
She points out that when we fall short on sleep, there’s a higher risk we experience the negative outcomes related to sleep deprivation, including our inability to come to work ‘fit for work’ and work safely, experiencing poor mental health (especially depression), the inability to control mood and chronic health conditions – to name a few.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Many workers for whom nights and afternoons are their norm have been able to cope well and maintain good health. How do they do it? What habits have they adopted that you or the person in your life who works shifts can adopt?
Hudye outlines four helpful steps that can make a positive impact on the wellness of shift workers.
On the job, there are strategies worth trying too. Experts at SleepWell Consultingsuggest trying to shift to a set schedule, whether it’s afternoons or nights. If consistency isn’t possible, make sure your next shift starts later than your present one. Go afternoons to nights, not the other way around.
Also be aware of the role that light plays on your internal clock. If you leave work when it’s daylight, consider wearing sunglasses and a hat to cut down on your intake of light. It will help you fall asleep faster when you get home.
When you’re pooped, a short nap (no more than 30 minutes) will help get you through the day without feeling sleep deprived.
Shift workers are prone to obesity and digestive issues so making good food choices is imperative. And meal planning is imperative if you want to avoid those all-too-convenient fast food options. Pack a healthy lunch and bring your own healthy snacks (fruit, veggies, yogurt, hummus or protein shakes) to work and avoid the junk in the vending machines. Make your freezer your friend, stocking it with items, such as lasagna, casseroles and shepherd’s pie, easy to heat and serve.
On the job, keep well hydrated and have a refillable water bottle nearby throughout your shift. Avoid or limit coffee intake. While handy for a quick jolt of energy, caffeine wreaks havoc with your sleep when it comes time to crawl into bed.
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