Taking care of the larks and owls in our night-time economy

Could you or your shift-working colleagues be sleep-walking into ill health?

Do you work for a 24/7 organisation? If so, you’re not alone. And if you, your team or your company has staff working outside of regular daytime hours, there are potential health implications that may be relevant to your / their health, wellbeing and productivity.

UK Shift Worker Stats:-

  • 27% of the UK workforce (approx. 8.7 million people) work in some form of night-time work¹
  • Shift work is linked with an increased risk of sleep problems, occupational and driving accidents, and long-term health conditions²
  • A survey in 2017 of NHS junior doctors found that 57% reported an accident or near-miss on the drive home after a night shift
  • Long-term effects – shift work is associated with increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease²

So how is the data looking for retention, staff sickness and morale amongst your shift workers? Are they feeling valued? Is the wellbeing of this largely unseen workforce a priority?

A common question regarding employee health is whether the main responsibility lies with the individual or the organisation? Shift workers are often aware of the increased risks to their health of ‘circadian desynchrony;’ the effect of living and sleeping contrary to our natural biological rhythms and resulting health conditions, such as chronic sleep deprivation. Yet individual choices are ‘too often frustrated by unfavourable environmental and organizational structures.³

Canteens are often open for regular daytime workers but closed to those working irregular hours, such as lates and night shifts.

Healthy eating options are usually more limited for shift workers, meal breaks can be ad hoc, depending on the job role, and cooking facilities scarce. Yet we demand so much of our shift workers – responding to emergencies, saving lives, protecting the public, caring for the vulnerable, maintaining our utilities, keeping our streets and workspaces clean, flying or driving us from A to B, delivering our essential supplies, preparing and serving us food and drink…

Once it gets dark, our digestive function is reduced, as our body and mind prepare to sleep. We are in rest mode, not digest mode. So how to fuel our night shift workers to perform well at 3am? How to focus the mind to perform surgery, make informed, wise and calculated decisions in the face of adversity, and on all manner of scales, when the key message from the brain is, ‘I should be asleep’?

Chrono-nutrition is the fascinating and emerging area of nutrition science that studies the relationship between our natural 24-hour body clock – our circadian rhythm – our food timings and choices, and the impact on our health. It seems that eating in rest mode without digest mode can drive a number of conditions, including uncomfortable gut symptoms commonly experienced by shift workers, issues with insulin and blood sugar regulation that can be the precursor to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and challenge with managing weight.

Many popular food options available from 24/7 outlets are the very foods that drive fatigue, blood sugar dysregulation and weight gain. There are both dietary and lifestyle interventions that can reduce these health risks. But many shift workers report feeling too tired to regularly cook fresh healthy food from scratch after curtailed sleep.

And so many rely on convenient ultra processed foods, offerings from vending machines, foods to fill, but with little nutritional value. We can struggle to register ‘fullness’ effectively when we eat these foods, which can lead many people to being overfed and undernourished.

Feed Your Body Clock ® is a programme that seeks to address these unique challenges, offering individuals and organisations chrono-nutrition learning and practical recommendations to invest in the long-term health and wellbeing of those 8.7 million, frequently unseen night workers.

Nutrivival is by no means the only organisation championing and campaigning for the wellbeing of shift workers through nutrition and lifestyle interventions, both at home and in the workplace. But I wish to thank the following organisations who have, to date, used and promoted our services, raising awareness and sharing our programmes with staff to support those individuals willing to crawl out of bed at unearthly hours, in order to keep us and our economy going:-

  1. Office for National Statistics (ONS), released 24 January 2023, ONS website, article, The night-time economy, UK: 2022. Available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/business/activitysizeandlocation/articles/thenighttimeeconomyuk/2022
  2. Houses of Parliament Postnote. Shift Work, Sleep and Health. Number 586, Sept 2018. Available at POST-PN-0586.pdf (parliament.uk).
  3. Rapid Response: Is individual responsibility the answer to optimising sleep at work to improve safety? Cappuccio, F, (2018) https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.j5637/rr-2