Shift work has been linked to many diverse health effects, including everything from heart disease, back problems, high blood pressure and even cancer. To date, many companies have used a wide variety of strategies to help keep shift workers healthier, well rested and safe. But very often these strategies take the more “common sense” approach rather than that of scientifically validated best practices.
But a recent article published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health (November 2014 edition) documented ways in which companies can have greater confidence in health-providing strategies that work, as well as which ones don’t work. There is wide array of interventional techniques that have been extensively researched, including shift scheduling, controlling workers’ exposure to light, and behavioral and pharmacological approaches.
According to the research, four specific strategies seemed to provide the best possible effect on chronic disease.
Fast-Forward Shift Rotations
The first strategy had to do with the scheduling of the shifts that workers followed. The best option seemed to be fast-forward rotating shifts. That means two morning shifts, to evening shifts, and two overnight shifts, followed by two to three days off. When workers followed this work schedule, they appeared to have the best short-term health benefits, including such things as less sleepiness. They also had more long-term health benefits, such as increased resistance to chronic illnesses.
While not every company will be able to rework their entire work schedule to accommodate this type of fast-forward rotating shifts, some changes to shift scheduling can be implemented right away. For example, if a company’s employees are on a fixed schedule or a backward rotation, schedules can be adjusted so that they are working on a fast-forwarding schedule. If workers are scheduled on a slow-forward rotation – in other words, they are rotating shifts every few weeks or every few months – then this rotation can be gradually reduced until workers are scheduled on a fast-forward rotating schedule.
Keeping workers in the loop as schedules are adjusted and educating them as to how research supports this rescheduling as a health benefit will help reduce resistance and keep them on board with the new changes.
Light Exposure Changes
The body makes physiological adjustments based on bright light. Exposure to bright light can effectively reset the body’s internal clock. So modifying workers’ exposure to light and blocking light can help increase productivity and keep employees more alert at the appropriate times and less alert at other times.
Another approach is to use blue light. Blue wavelength of light suppresses the body’s natural production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. This can have a profound effect on an individual’s wakefulness. For this reason, exposure to bright light – especially bright light that has blue wavelengths, such as those produced by modern energy-efficient bulbs – during the working shift can heighten workers’ alertness by causing a hormonal “phase shift” in their bodies’ natural circadian rhythms.
This type of phase shift light exposure already has been proven to be effective in treating jet lag and for helping space workers. But it remains to be proven effective in daytime light exposures for shift workers. Yet by combining the right light exposure with light-blocking glasses at the end of the workers’ shifts – such as during their commute home or for a few hours before sleeping – the effects of off-shift light exposure can be improved. Certain types of glasses that actually block the blue wavelength of light can be used.
To improve energy use and heighten employee awareness, one approach is to replace workplace lighting with modern energy-efficient bulbs that shine brighter and also provide a higher spectrum of blue light. Companies also can provide workers with blue-blocking sunglasses as part of their work-related working gear and educate them on how to use these devices to improve their sleep cycles.
Benefits of Physical Activity
In the same way that light exposure can make workers more productive on the job and more rested during off-work hours, physical activity also can improve alertness. A regular workout regimen also has a positive effect on overall health, building strength, controlling weight and strengthening the body’s natural immune system so that workers don’t get sick as often.
Yet shift work can often create challenges to workers being active. Following a regular workout schedule or going to the gym can be more difficult for shift workers.
One way companies can promote physical activity for shift workers is by providing on-site workout facilities. While other options – such as local gyms, walking paths and other types of fitness facilities – may not always be an option, workers can easily take advantage of such built-in facilities as exercise rooms, walking course, swimming pools and other opportunities to be physically active during breaks and before and after their shifts.
By providing on-site workout options and encouraging shift workers to be more active, companies can improve the alertness and productivity of their employees while improving their overall health and fitness at the same time.
Creating a Culture of Health
Shift work, by its very nature, creates an impediment for health eating. Workers are often forced to make food choices that are convenient, rather than healthy. Fast food, junk food and other unhealthy options are the norm rather than the exception, in many cases. And on the job, workers often must eat quickly during limited lunch breaks and other pauses in the work day.
A healthy body is more resilient and provides companies with workers who are more productive, alert and efficient. Yet workers on nonstandard shifts often find it next to impossible to follow a healthy diet.
Companies can counteract that by ensuring that the kinds of foods provided at on-site dining facilities and break rooms include healthier choices. Workers also can be provided with healthy eating tips and be given incentives to improve their diets at home. These can include such things as free healthy cooking classes, coupons or subsidies for fresh produce and grains, and recipes for easy to make healthy meals.