How can employers support the health and well-being of shift workers?

Shift work is one of many contributors to increased job stress and stress related illnesses in recent years. Due to the nature of their work, shift workers are prone to stress related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, weight gain and mental health illnesses such as depression.

They can experience severe fatigue due to lack of sleep which leads to increased stress and poor motivation to exercise. Shift workers also tend to opt for food with a high level of stimulants to support energy such as caffeine, sugar, higher carbohydrate foods, smoking and alcohol.

According to data, up to 30% of the working population are employed by shifts therefore the health of this demographic is an important consideration for businesses who have employees working outside the traditional 9am-5pm.

In some companies shift workers are overlooked when it comes to wellness programmes due to their unconventional working hours. Many will consider providing information only for shift workers which have less practical use than needed on a day to day basis.

Research performed by Heriot-Watt University found that an initiative to provide shift-working British police officers with information about strategies for sleep, eating, exercise and family life was found to make no difference in their health behaviours.

Information documents are usually generic in nature and don’t provide strategies tailored to the individual, therefore, most shift workers didn’t find much value in them. They also lack the ability to support an individual’s ability to adapt to shift work or changing schedules which is more likely where the problems lie.

So how can you, the employer, support the health and well-being of your shift workers? Here are 6 suggestions I have researched recently.

1. Assess Shift Patterns

While this may not fall under your traditional wellness programme umbrella it does fall under Occupational Wellness (part of the 8 Dimensions of Wellness) which encourages a healthy working structure.

It’s important to assess your shifts to ensure you get the best from your workforce. An article published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health recommended “Fast-Forward Shift Rotations” implemented as 2-morning shifts, 2 evening shifts, 2 overnight shifts followed by 2-3 days off. When followed, workers long term health improved.

2. Avoid “Shift Worker” Programmes

While dedicated programmes for shift workers are important, avoiding using the term “shift work” in the title may make it more attractive. Most shift workers don’t see their problems as being the changing shift.

Most of them have been working shift work for 10-20 years. Their challenges are more around sleeping, nutrition timing, family relationships and caring for young children or elderly parents, therefore, programmes focused on providing them with tools and helping them implement them are ideal.

3. Focus on Energy Balance

Sleep expert Carolyn Schur says that lack of sleep leads to increased fatigue which reduces a worker’s ability to cope with stress. It also leads to poor motivation which in turn leads to reduced exercise and increased usage of stimulants such as sugar, caffeine, smoking and alcohol.

4. Equip Family Members

Information tool-kits provided to families of shift workers can be beneficial for helping them manage life at home. Additional stressors such as relationships, finances and looking after young children and/or elderly parents can put additional stress on an individual.

Providing family members with information and useful tools to support the shift worker can help them outside of working hours and thus improve their performance at work and overall well-being.

5. Create a 24/7 Programme

A well-structured wellness programme will need to be available 24/7 to ensure all shift workers reap the benefits. Many wellness providers now have additional supporting technologies such as web-based platforms and applications that can host information webinars, online workshops, online yoga, meditations and fitness classes.

The challenge also faced is that many shift workers work on production lines or phone-based contact centres with little availability to attend a workshop, class or watch a webinar. Leaderboards and team challenges via an app are also beneficial for increasing engagement both in and out of working hours.

6. Train Management

Circadian, an international consultancy firm has been supporting shift workers for over 20 years by providing supports to help shift workers cope with the consequences and challenges unorthodox working hours cause. Equipping management with the tools to support them is one of their key strategies.

While a well-structured and targeted health programme can improve the health and quality of life for shift workers there is a significant delay in fully analysing the benefits.

Most wellness programmes tick three boxes; diet, exercise and mental health and many do not include the other elements of wellness and the surveying of their employees to support the design and post programme analysis. The best way to design a strategic wellness programme and determine the success of it is to ask your employees.

If you are looking to support your employees (shift workers or other) and require assistance in building a wellness strategy aligned to your business needs, values and culture please do not hesitate to contact me on elysia.hegarty@cpl.ie