6 ways to support the health and wellbeing of shift workers
For someone standing on the outside, it’s hard to fathom how such a rewarding and compassionate profession can be equally frustrating, demoralising and, to put it frankly, bad for one’s physical and mental health.
Working in the NHS as a young, single woman, I would often work overtime, miss tea breaks due to unplanned emergency admissions, and put off going to the toilet just to catch up with my tasks.
At the time I felt obligated to do it, after all I had the patients’ best interests at heart. But this took its toll on my physical health. When you work in healthcare, you spend your time looking after everyone else, with very little time left to look after yourself. No employee should have to sacrifice their health, family, or values for their work. Employees need to be compensated with a workplace wellness programme.
While in the private sector the nurse-to-patient ratio was significantly less, the expectation from management was higher due to the private, self-pay patients. More emphasis was laid on what staff weren’t doing well than on what they did do well.
Understandably, when employers don’t go the extra mile to reward or acknowledge employees and their contribution in the workplace, workers will leave. Often it’s because of bad management that employees leave and not the job itself.
Staying on in the NHS would have been an option had there been more reward and recognition programmes in place. In addition, ‘rejuvenation days’ where employees are offered on-site massages or other perks that improve physical and mental health would have made it a place worth working in, and would have compensated for all the extra hours often required of staff.
The health impacts of shift work
Employees spend half their life at work, 40 plus hours per week to be exact. If their work is particularly strenuous or involves shift work, the risk of suffering health problems such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, peptic ulcers and type II diabetes is significantly high. They may also suffer disturbances in their sleep pattern, which can lead to stress.
According to the Health Survey for England 2013, men and women in shift work were more likely than non-shift workers to have diabetes. Shift workers were also less likely to meet government recommendations of eating five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
To keep sift workers happy, health and produtive, employers have a responsibility to support their employees' health and wellbeing. Here are my six recommendations to get started.
1. Maintain a clean work environment
This is pertinent to minimising risk of infection, whether it’s from poor personal hygiene or badly managed toilet facilities. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 stipulates that employers have a general duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees as much as possible.
Shift workers, particularly night workers, are more susceptible to infections due to the likelihood of a low or weakened immune system. eLearning courses on personal and workplace hygiene are always a good way to ensure employees are up to date with best practices.
2. Promote regular health checks
Enable employees to talk about their health concerns. This is particularly important if that health concern impacts on their work duties. Nominating a wellness champion who serves as the employees’ advocate or relays employee suggestions back to management will encourage employees to speak up and not bottle up feelings or concerns.
Employees may find it therapeutic speaking to an external or impartial health professional during a health check. Stress is common in any job but more so in certain strenuous industries such as healthcare or construction.
Good health begins with prevention. If employers can promote regular health checks in the workplace, as opposed to ad hoc initiatives, problems can be prevented from escalating.
3. Tackle stress in the workplace
Stress can have a serious impact on the physical and mental health of an individual. Stress cannot be avoided, as it’s the body’s natural response to excessive pressure. However, intermittent stress awareness workshops, mental health champions in the workplace, and an open-door policy can help employees recognise, respond to and manage their stress appropriately.
Employers should ensure that employees who work shifts don’t miss out on health and wellbeing programmes.
4. Provide healthier snacks
If the workplace only provides vending machines that dispense sugar-laden snacks, this will only contribute to the likelihood of workers developing chronic illnesses such as type II diabetes.
Chances are, if you are working a night shift or a late shift, you will eat later than usual and usually anything you can find. It’s almost always convenience over health.
Employees will go for what they see or what is provided, so providing healthy options is key to contributing and promoting employee health and wellbeing.
5. Flexible working options
Empower and motivate employees by giving them the option to work, not necessarily from home, but remotely. People’s needs and circumstances change, and flexible working options can support these changes.
6. Encourage fundraising
Promote fun activities that encourage giving back, such as charity fun runs. This serves to boost employee morale, as it involves doing something positive while improving health.
Employees know they have a job to do, but with these recommendations you can encourage them to not just survive in the workplace, but thrive.
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Abigail Morakinyo is a registered nurse, and health consultant, and the founder of www.healthincheck.co.uk - a company dedicated to providing on site health checks, at business premises and at home. Health In Check have a keen interest in why people become ill, and look at their...