• Fiona

Tips to achieve optimal health & wellbeing for shift workers.

Who knew we were going to be in ‘lockdown’ this year when we were counting down to midnight on New Year’s Eve? Definitely not me!

With lots of people spending time at home, there are still a lot of essential workers still getting up every single day doing their thing, so let's take a moment to really appreciate our frontline workers.

Our shift workers are the ones I would like to focus on today, so that may be our healthcare workers, carers, truck drivers and those doing night-fills in supermarkets, to name a few!

The Circadian Rhythm

Our bodies naturally follow a “sleep-wake” cycle, called the circadian rhythm, or our ‘master-clock’. 

This system includes the internal biological pattern synced with the external cosmic pattern (the earth’s 24 hour rotation around the sun once every 24hrs!)

In the morning when the optic nerves sense light, the brain and body communicate to send signals to raise our temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and delay the release of hormones including melatonin (which helps us sleep).

In the evening as the sun goes down, the body and brain again pick up those signals of changing light, therefore as daylight wanes and darkness appears, the natural processes that are picked up with daylight in the morning begin to subside and return to their lowest levels again as we sleep. 

So, the problem here for those who are shift workers, or students staying up late to study, is that our daily schedules do not correlate with sunrise and sunset, so we’re constantly fighting that ‘master clock’ which ultimately results in disruption of our natural rhythms (the biological clock is either running too fast or too slow). 

Health Concerns

An accumulated sleep debt and high demand jobs relating to shift workers is associated with workers’ fatigue. Some of the concerns to wellbeing to consider with disrupted circadian rhythms are:

•  Interruption of natural physiological and psychological rhythms

•  Fatigue, drowsiness, sleepiness

•  Increased accident risks, both on and off the job

•  Sleep disorders

•  Gastrointestinal disorders

•  Cardiovascular diseases

•  Nervous disorders

•  Disturbances of family and social life

Shift workers have a 40% greater risk of developing ischaemic heart disease, in particular night shift workers. An association also exists between shift work and metabolic syndrome, and a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, possibly due to job-related stress and disruption of the circadian rhythm. 

The Immune System

During sleep time and day time activities, our immune systems work in a systematic way. Sleep, the circadian system, and the immune system are temporally integrated to anticipate environmental changes and optimise adaptation. Research has shown that reduced sleep duration in the weeks preceding exposure to a rhinovirus increases susceptibility to the common cold. 

Our body is naturally designed to have 8 hours of work, play and sleep, with morning hours best for strenuous mental and physical activities, and performance levels generally lowering when the body and brain need to rest (i.e. night time!).

So, for those who don’t currently have the flexibility to live with the sunlight, here are some tips to consider that may help to achieve optimal physical and mental wellbeing, prevent burnout and sleep debt, in other words, to avoid becoming a sleep-deprived-zombie:

  • Ensure the important people in your life know that you are a shift worker to increase the support system. This will help you avoid getting into awkward situations where you have to keep saying “no” to brunches after a night of work, or worse, say yes because you have a fear of missing out. Getting your equal share of sleep should be prioritised over anything else! If you have a little family of your own, planning out what day-to-day life looks like with your partner and children is also very important to maintain relationships without compromising your health. 

  • When sleeping, allow your environment to mimic that of any other person’s “normal” sleep environment - reduce as much light pollution as possible (blockout curtains, eye masks, if needed), keep phones away from you (during and right before bed-time - sleep is more important than Facebook!) and avoid caffeine 6 hours before bedtime (opt for herbal teas instead if you’re a tea person!).

  • Participate in exercise and physical activity (aim for that 150 minutes per week at least as recommended for anybody else - that’s 30 minutes a day 5 days a week if you split it up that way). Ideally, you do not want to be working up a sweat or adrenaline rush right before bed-time to allow your heart rate to slow down and prepare for sleep. Exercise first thing when you wake up, or a little after your first meal for some fuel.

  • Speaking of meals, it is super important to ensure you either prepare your week’s meals beforehand, or have nutritionally healthy foods ready to go for your shift. When you’re tired or sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to opt for the easy options which tend to not be the healthiest either (avoid going for the easy option of pies and burgers, although a very occasional sneaky apple pie from Maccas is sometimes rather delightful!). Keep in mind, a nutritionally dense meal does not always look like a bowl of lettuce and shredded chicken pieces or tofu! 

  • Pick a few colleagues that you like (yes it’s true, we don’t always have to get along with everyone!) or connect with some friends who are also shift workers to socialise with outside of the shifts (remember, 8 hours of play!). This is a good way to stay connected so that you do not find yourself withdrawn from people completely. 

This list is definitely not the only way. If you are a shift worker or know someone who is one, I would love to hear what you do to help you optimise your lifestyle to achieve your best. Leave a comment below, or comment on the social media links with this article! 

As always at the end of my blog, I always like to share with you my choice of charity to raise awareness or encourage my readers to give back. Feel free to have a read of my previous blogs to check out other organisations - you might also find some useful health information too!

For this month of May, I would like to show some love for mothers around the world, and the health and wellbeing of their babies (it was Mother’s Day this month after all!). Compassion Australia offers so many ways to help one child, one family and one community at a time. Many mums and children are living in poverty and do not have access to some of the most basic things that everyone should. Take some time to read about why the first year of life is so critical here, and how you can help! 

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