Working for any long period in a shift work setting is known to have profound effects on people. Including sleep disturbance, physical health deterioration and a big impact on Mental Health.

These effects can lead not only to prolonged health consequences, but also to safety risks within the workplace, due to lack of sleep and physical exhaustion.

Awareness is vital. Not only for workers but also for managers and employers too. We spoke to some shift workers and asked them about their experiences.

The Strains of Shift Work

Mental health problems are one of the biggest, and least talked about, factors for people who work long unsociable hours.

There’s many advatages to working shifts. We mentioned in our previous blog, that people often enjoy working nights. There’s more time to get work done. Fewer distractions. Less likelyhood of management sitting on your shoulder.

But there’s also the issues of lonlinenss and overworking too. As one of our responders told us – “A 12 hour night shift is a long period of time when you are working alone. There’s no one to throw ideas to or generally have a chat with. Sometimes you just need to talk about the weekend’s football, or that recent episode of Eastenders!”

Sleeping problems are Common

Starting a nightshift can be difficult enough, knowing it’s going a long slog, without the added extra of very disturbed, unsuccessful periods of sleep during the daytime.

Many shift workers who try to sleep during the day know how difficult it is.

“I have a lovely next-door neighbour, who I’ve lived next to for years. But she never seems to remember that I’ve only just got home from work and need to get some decent sleep, ready for the next shift tonight.  The worst is when she has a friend round she hasn’t for a few weeks and there’s lots of gossip to talk about with a lot of LOUD laughs thrown in!”

Yvonne told us about her experience of sleeping during the day.

“We had a new neighbour, who had just moved in. They were very nice, but they were started building work for their new extension. Apparently they needed it for their growing family. The growing family was lovely, but the drilling through the day certainly wasn’t!”

Anyone who has tried to sleep during the day knows similar stories. Unfortunately, lots of broken sleep leads, not just to lack of productivity, but also to elevated risks in the workplace.

Eating Heathily

A healthy balanced diet is another factor that shift workers tell us is neglected while working shifts.  In the busier of roles, such as a hospital night shift, it’s easier to grab quick snacks when you grab a minute’s. As Donna told us

“It’s more likely to be a handful of crisps or the Iced Doughnut, my colleagues have brought in, than something healthy, like chicken pasta bowl followed by a fresh fruit salad. I know what I should be eating, but I know what I’m like as well!”

Tom who works in the Ambulance Service explained how his lack of regular meals affect him.

“Fatigue kicks in. Headaches start from lack of hydration. The sluggish unmotivated feeling takes hold. I know the signs now, so try to stay on top of it. But it’s not always easy. And it makes you very low.”

Combining Shift Work and Family Life

Many shift workers told us about their difficulties, trying to combine shift work and family like.

“If I’ve had a really difficult shift, I feel tired and stressed enough, but the work doesn’t stop once I’m home. I need to be a parent and partner too. There’s a horrible feeling that I know I need to do all the homely stuff, but how and when are I meant to fit it all in??”

Most shift workers know the guilt of trying to do everything. Especially when children are invovled. Whether it’s trying to make time for a child who has been working hard to learn their lines for their part as the farmer in that mornings assembly … its only one line, but it’s a good one! How can you miss it? But you need sleep! And there’s another tough shift tonight with all hands on deck. But you sacrifice that extra hour in bed for the award winning line, beaming smile and cheeky wave!

Or spending time with a spouse or partners. They’ve just got a work promotion want to go for a celebratory tipple, or a fancy meal, and why not? You’ve have just done a 12 hour shift, been up since 5am. And todays tasks were particularly difficult, emotionally draining and/or stressful.  The last thing you want to do is to start having to find an outfit, make yourself look presentable and put on that fake smile! You just want to put your PJ’s. Open a box of celebrations (without sharing) and watch repeats of Only Fools and Horses! But you do it knowing you won’t be home until 11pm, and that 5am start tomorrow isn’t going to move.

Either way, you feel bad if you do and bad if you don’t … Someone is going to feel the effects of it whether its you or your loved ones!

Taking time for you

The best advice we heard from shift workers was from Andy.

“It’s important to remember that you can only do what you can do.  You cannot be in 2 places at once and no one can expect you to be.”

Shift workers know these issues. Managing them is hard. But it’s important to make sure that you prioritise you and your health.

“You’re no good to anyone else if you’re not physically and mentally well.”