Shift work is a fact of life for millions of people around the world. But those who keep businesses afloat 24-hours-a-day can do more than they realize to make their lives easier, healthier and happier.
Shift work is nothing new – as those who work in manufacturing will tell you.
Where some continuous production processes can take days to start up and shut down, it is just not practical to operate a regular 9-5.
Today, more and more people work shifts to cope with society’s 24/7 demands and needs.
The crucial thing is how best to cope with shift work, to make the transition from days to nights and back again whilst maintaining normal energy levels.
Steve Gasser, who has been an operator at INEOS Joffre LAO plant for eight years, is one of 35 operators who looks after the day-to-day operations of the plant. He said his experience had shown that shift work affects different people in different ways.
“The older you get the more difficult it becomes for your body to adjust to shift work,” he said. “It can affect your energy levels, how you think and feel physically. Both at work and at home.”
“Some rotations are better than others. Winters here are the most difficult because of the limited daylight and cold weather.”
The experience is not uncommon. It is very similar to jet lag. But employees can do more than they think to manage the body’s internal clock by watching what they eat and drink, getting good quality sleep and taking exercise.
Steve, who has worked shifts on and off for 25 years, says most shift workers avoid caffeine and energy drinks, quickly learn to be able to sleep whenever they get the opportunity and often exercise.
Dr Adam Carey, Founder and Director of Corperformance, gives his advice. “In recent years, researchers have also found that certain types of food eaten at specific times can actually reduce the impact of changing time zones (jet lag) by up to 70% and much of this is applicable to changing shifts,” he said.
“Eating more food, which is high in protein, makes people more alert and meals that are high in carbohydrates encourages sleep because of the hormones the foods produce.”
“When diet is combined with exercise and good quality sleep in a cool, well darkened place, the impact can be dramatic.”
There are a number of things that individuals, who are switching from working days to nights, already do. To reduce the impact of the first night, they often try to go to bed much later than usual – for example 2am – so that they sleep in and get up later than usual on their first day of nights, hopefully closer to 11am or even noon.
“Nutritionists have also found that reducing the body’s sugar reserves before the switch can help,” said Adam. “In our experience, though, it must be done at least 24 hours before any changeover in shift.”
“We would advise an employee to cut out carbohydrates on the last day of his day shift change and eat protein-based meals instead.”
“That essentially would mean no bread, rice, pasta, root vegetables, grains, sweets, chocolates biscuits and cakes on that day.”
“On waking on the first day of nights, an employee should eat very lightly during the day and before starting the shift. Any meal should be high in protein and low in carbohydrates.”
“During the shift – and to stay alert – all meals and snacks should again be high in protein and low in carbohydrates.”
“It is also, though, very important to drink plenty of water.”
“Many people get tired and suffer from poor concentration, solely because they are slightly dehydrated.”
“At the end of the night shift, a spot of exercise can be helpful before eating a meal that is high in carbohydrates and low in protein, such as pasta, because that releases the hormone that helps one to sleep.”
Adam also advises on getting good quality sleep and says where you sleep is critical.
“Many people sleep in rooms that are just too hot,” he said. “But it is very important to get your core body temperature to drop slightly. If the room or bedding stop you from keeping cool, then it will be more difficult to get to sleep, or stay asleep, even when tired.”
Misti Jezek, shift operator team leader at INEOS’ Chocolate Bayou Works’ polypropylene manufacturing plant, has worked shifts for almost 19 years. She always makes sure her bedroom is quiet, cold and dark.
“I’ve actually found that I sleep best if the air conditioning unit is running because it blocks outside sounds,” she said.
“Any room should be a maximum of 16oC (69oF) – even better between 12 – 14oC (53oF – 57oF). After a good sleep, it’s important to drink plenty of water and then eat well.”
“If in winter it is getting dark when you are supposed to be getting up, a timed light can be effective and will help you wake up more naturally,” said Adam.
“Bright lights at work are also important.”
At the end of the four days of working nights, people tend to use one of two strategies. They either go home and sleep briefly, but get up earlier, or they try not to sleep and go to bed early. Either way, once awake, try to exercise, eat a meal that is high in protein and avoid starchy foods. When it is time to sleep, eating a starch-based meal will increase the chance of falling asleep.
Someone who does this is Kenneth Cockheijt, a young chemical field process operator based at Antwerp.
“I work out quite often in the gym, or ride my bike if possible, so that I’m always sleepy when I need to be,” he said.
If he does ever struggle to get to sleep, he finds listening to music helps. He also watches his diet, changing what he eats to give him extra energy when he needs it.
Working environments are rarely perfect, but managing your diet and taking exercise will not only make you a happier and healthier individual, but they will also ensure you can make the most of your time when you are at home.
And that has always been important to Misti who started working shifts when her daughter was three.
“Working shifts has given me a lot more opportunities through the years to attend my daughter’s school parties and events than most parents who work a strict day schedule,” she said.
What shift workers can do to make life easier?
Eat high protein meals before work to make you more alert
Eat meals, which are high in carbohydrates, before bedtime
Sleep in a cool, dark room. The room should be a maximum of 16oC
Exercise where possible
Drink plenty of water