Dec 01, 2023

Researchers call for workplace health policies to assist night shift workers

Rotating shift workers are more likely to eat more kilojoules, snack more on junk food and don’t eat as many nutritious foods. [Source: Shutterstock]

Researchers have called for adequate workplace policies to be introduced for shift workers to assist them in managing their weight and metabolic health. 

Making up an average of 20% of the workforce with 25–30% of those working nights, there are currently no systems in place to assist night shift workers in making healthier lifestyle choices, despite having an increased risk of weight gain and a higher risk of weight-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Published in Obesity Reviews, a mixed-methods systematic review led by the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food at Monash University investigated the barriers that night shift workers face in enabling them to make healthier lifestyle choices. 

Eight studies in Australia, Sweden, Nigeria, the USA, and Botswana found such barriers included:

  • Work-related fatigue, lack of routine, limited healthy food options at night, lack of meal breaks
  • Limited healthy food options surrounding work at night
  • Time constraints, fatigue, stress
  • Work routines and cultural norms

The review also analysed the data from 12 intervention studies in Europe, Australia and Canada and found the studies targeting weight management behaviours for night shift workers demonstrated limited weight loss results, with only one intervention reporting a clinically significant weight loss result. 

The existing interventions had largely focussed on addressing only a limited number of barriers faced by night shift workers.

In March, Monash researchers found rotating shift workers eat more kilojoules, snack more on junk food and don’t eat as many nutritious foods, increasing their risk of diet-related illnesses.

For each recorded day of kilojoule intake, rotating shift workers ate on average 264 more kilojoules than regular day workers.  An increase of just 100 kilojoules each day can lead to a .5 kilogram weight gain over a year.

Shift workers also reported unhealthier dietary patterns than day workers, including irregular meals, more snacking or eating at night, less core food consumption and more eating of discretionary foods.

Tania Whalen, 51, has done shift work off and on for 20 years, and consecutively for the last six years.

“The good part of rotational shift work is having up to four days off at a time and the work has fitted in nicely with raising a family,” she said. 

“The bad part is the food and nutrition challenges, especially as I often work 12-hour shifts. That’s a long time to prepare food for and keep it fresh at work.”

First author of the recent review Corinne Davis, PhD candidate from the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food at Monash University, said, “The fatigue and disruption to routine that often accompanies working at night is challenging for night shift workers and we need to make it easier for them to choose healthier food options.”

The authors called for more research that takes into consideration the complexities of shift work and weight loss approaches that account for the timing and quality of food intake. They also want to see the exploration of the impact of sleep quality for night shift workers on weight management. 

Future interventions should also focus on eliminating the key barriers faced by night shift workers such as facilitating the availability of healthier food options within the workplace at night.  

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