Shift workers risk mental and physical health

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Staff working shifts outside the hours of 0700-1900 hours are at higher risk of developing chronic health conditions and serious illness, and could even be risking a decline in cognitive function a recent survey revealed. In this article, Gary Cattermole, director at award winning employee engagement consultancy and staff survey specialist, The Survey Initiative, explains why he believes employers have a duty of care to protect their staff against the risks and gives advice on how to it can be achieved.    

Shift work may not be the working pattern many of us would naturally choose, but for some it is the offer of employment, bonuses, or extra hours, some on zero hour contracts, that makes night shifts an everyday part of their lives. Of course night shifts are also an unavoidable part of some professions, and with an ever increasing 24/7 culture this is unlikely to change. The recent Health Survey for England survey conducted by the Health and Social Care Information Centre has shaken the HR industry as it has found a direct link between these working patterns and ill health, and has made awkward reading for many in the profession. 

The results:

  • Shift workers have higher rates of obesity and ill-health than the general population. The data from the survey showed that 30% of shift workers were obese, compared with 24% of men and 23% of women working normal hours.
  • 40% of men and 45% of women on shifts had long-standing health conditions, such as back-pain, diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, compared with 36% and 39% of the rest of the population.
  • ‘Night owls’ are also more likely to smoke, which could exacerbate many of the illnesses they are at risk of developing.
  • Shift work is most common in the 16-24 age group; an age group that should exhibit better levels of health and cognitive performance. The rates fell with age so that fewer than a third of men and a fifth of women were working shifts after the age of 55.

Is it a surprise?

If you’ve ever spoken to anyone who has worked night shifts and tried to sleep through the day they will all tell you that it’s not easy; it would seem that disrupting the body clock can lead to a whole host of health issues. There’s biological research to help us understand why too, Dr Simon Archer, a body clock scientist at the University of Surrey, states that shifts are bad for the body, as the body isn’t designed to eat at night; it doesn’t shift fat very well and shift workers tend to want to eat high calorie foods, which translates into weight gain and illnesses such as type-2 diabetes.

Other reports, such as one published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggested that a decade of shifts aged the brain by more than six years. It also found that retired shift workers still had lower sleep quality than people who had never worked nights.

But what can be done to help organisations and employees that require services 24/7?

The body’s internal clock is designed for us to be active in the day and asleep at night, so in an ideal world there would be no requirement for staff outside the hours of 0700-1900 but that just isn’t possible. Industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality and security are highly reliant on their shift workers and that is unlikely to ever change.

Employers have a health and safety and morale responsibility to employees and should try to mitigate the risks to their staff.  This level of investment in employee relations is beneficial to both employer and employee - it is a well documented fact that companies that invest in their staff in such a way benefit from higher staff retention rates and levels of productivity, higher levels of employee satisfaction and lower rates of absence, leading to lower recruitment and training costs.  All of these are significant benefits to a business in terms of its bottom line but also its reputation and brand.

What can  businesses do to help?

The report showed that 33% of men and 22% of women of working age were doing shift work, which is defined as employment outside the hours of 0700-1900. Of those working shifts, there were more people from lower income households who already exhibit higher rates of poor health.  With that in mind, companies could look at healthy eating and stop smoking programmes, fitness clubs, saving schemes to support their staff but being careful not to ‘nanny’ their employees. An easy to set-up example is to offer staff free fruit and access to water.   

Businesses should talk to staff to find out what it is they want in the form of support.  If you provide what they want (within reason of course), it is far more likely to be beneficial to staff relations and is more likely to be utilised. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution because all industries are different, as are their staffing requirements. In addition, due to the requirements of different roles, some shift workers are more active than others, which should also be taken into account. It is the people ‘on the ground’, i.e. the shift workers who will know what they need so ask them.

However, before consulting with staff, companies should first ensure they are fully aware of the resources they can apply to support shift workers – in terms of time, expertise, staff and money. This is where all HRs need to get the Directors on board. There is no benefit in making empty promises or providing flash in the pan solutions. This has to be a long-term undertaking and commitment and should have the buy-in of the entire business to ensure its success. A lot of damage can be done to employee relations by not fulfilling promises or by removing support once offered.

It is equally important that businesses regularly review how their actions have impacted on their workforce, perhaps every 6-12 months. This will highlight any need for adjustments to be made to the welfare plan and will also provide an insight into how staff perceive the benefits of the support they are receiving. Importantly, it also demonstrates to staff that the business remains invested in their ongoing wellbeing and happiness.

About Gary Cattermole

Gary Cattermole

I am a dedicated employee research expert with over 15 years experience in helping organisations gain deeper insight and understanding of what makes their employees tick.

Currently I am a Director at The Survey Initiative - a boutique employee research organisation.  I have the pleasure of working with organisations as diverse as the Telegraph Media Group, Schaeffler, Epson, Royal Society of Chemistry, PhonepayPlus, Places for People and Ashtma UK.

Over the past 3 to 4 years a large degree of our work has focused on employee engagement and assisting organisations in getting a grounding on what is driving engagemement in their organisation - this is through a range of research techniques from surveys to workshops.  In addition, we have been facilitating actions and implementing techniques to help Senior and Middle managers better understand what engagement is and what they can do practically, on a day to day level, to create an environment where employee engagement can thrive.

I'm delighted to be part of HR Zone and contribute to discussions, articles and blogs.

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