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The weight of evidence against shift work is getting hefty

At first glance, getting up and going to sleep at a time other than the sun may not seem so dramatic, but many of the body’s essential functions and processes are linked to an internal clock.

It lasts about 24 hours, resets each day through the light and dark cycle, and creates circadian rhythms that affect our sleep, temperature, metabolism, cognition, and other functions.

This rhythm can be disrupted by doing things like working at night, said Dr. Tracey Sletten, a shift work and fatigue expert at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.

“We don’t function as effectively,” she said. “If we were awake at night trying to do a job like a night shift, we would have impaired cognitive function, so our reaction time would be slowed down. We wouldn’t be able to make decisions as effectively. We might not be able to communicate either. ”

How can we make shift work healthier?

Fred Gachon, an associate professor of the physiology of circadian rhythms at the University of Queensland, said if you have to work through the night it’s best to stick to regular shifts and avoid the kind of “rotating” shifts that were the subject of the Monash study.


At least 1.4 million Australians – about 16 per cent of workers – have shift work as their main occupation and these rotating shifts are the most common form.

Gachon said that while people who regularly worked night shifts could adapt to their schedule to some extent, especially if they go without food and coffee at night, this was impossible for rotating shift workers, who have different schedules each week.

“Their circadian clock is always disrupted and disrupted, and it’s the worst-case scenario for shift work,” he said.

Another finding of the Monash study, which examined 31 studies, was that shift workers were more likely to reach for confectionery, junk food and alcohol, and ate fewer “core foods” such as dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables.

Investigator Angela Clark.

Clark, a research dietitian, said employers could provide better access to healthy food for night workers, such as catered meals, better vending machine options or even a freezer with healthy foods.

We already know that shift workers … tend to rely on take-out or convenience stores or vending machines, because when you work at 10pm, there aren’t really many places open to buy food. limited harvest.”

Clark said employees could also plan to eat more during the day to reduce the temptation to snack frequently in the evening, which she said raises blood sugar and cholesterol and fats in the blood.

“If they can frontload a bit more, so they don’t eat at 1 a.m. … that could also help reduce some of these chronic disease risks.”

Tania Whalen, 51, has been working shifts for more than 20 years. Recently, the call center employee of the emergency services works in a rotating schedule of eight days, two long day shifts of 12 hours, two long night shifts of 12 hours and then four days off.

Whalen said it could be challenging to bring in enough food for her 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shifts, or vice versa. And just as day workers can relate to a sugar craving that hits at 3 p.m., the same can happen for night workers, except in the wee hours of the morning.

Tania Whalen has found that preparation is key to maintaining a healthy diet during her night shifts.

Tania Whalen has found that preparation is key to maintaining a healthy diet during her night shifts. Credit:Simon Schluter

“If you haven’t brought enough food for your 12 hours or something in your locker that you’re allowed to have, you tend to get something from a vending machine.”

After recently participating in a Monash study that tested weight-loss interventions on night shift workers, Whalen said she’d started to stock up on frozen meals and healthy snacks like nuts that provided longer-lasting energy.

Should we stop working shifts altogether?

Gachon said he was not aware of any country that had decided to restrict shift work.

In fact, “there is a tendency for more and more people to work in shifts”.

But given the growing pile of evidence of harm, the expert said it’s time to have a conversation about the risks and benefits of non-essential work that could happen while the rest of us are asleep.

“For example, I’ve never understood why McDonald’s has to be open 24/7,” Gachon said.

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