Starting a new job is daunting – but if you’re starting shift work it’s doubly so!  

Not only have you got new work to get your head into, you also have to cope with odd sleeping hours, eating in the middle of the night, different working conditions and getting to grips with a complex shift pattern. (There’s a great app to help with that!)

Shift work takes getting used to, and it can have quite an effect on your health and lifestyle.

Put off shift work? Don’t be …

Plenty of jobs and careers require shift work, and the good news is that millions of people work shifts every day – and they survive!

How do they do it? These 6 tips might just help you find the answer.

1. Eat often and eat well

In the middle of the night, our natural body clock tells us we should be sleeping, not sitting down to eat lunch, which is why shift work can play havoc with your dietary health. The natural reaction of the body when we are tired is not to eat or, worse still, to graze.

A recent study showed that delaying meals because shifts can mess with your body clock, causing a range of health issues. A five-hour delay in meal times causes a five-hour delay in blood glucose rhythms. When blood sugar levels dip too low it can impair judgment and cause long term problems. Additionally, that sinking feeling makes us crave sugar, such as chocolate, carbs and other unhealthy foods.

The only way to beat this is to plan ahead and organise what to eat during and around shifts. If you eat regularly and make sure you have plenty of healthy choices available, you’re less likely to be hit by the 3am sink.

2. Take regular breaks

Breaks are not only important, they are a legal requirement in work. We spoke to Emma Fay, from The HR Department. She told us  that all shift workers should be given adequate rest breaks of at least 20 minutes, if their working day is longer than six hours. Those doing monotonous or more hazardous work must be given more.

Employers have to  protect shift workers and look after their health, for example, night workers should work no more than eight hours in any 24-hour period.

“Employers need a healthy workforce,” says Emma, “So it’s important that they are provided for. Night shift workers in particular need support and may also be entitled to a free health assessment.”

3. Keep up with Exercise

The first thing most shift workers want to do at the end of a shift is head straight to bed. The last thing most want to do is go to the gym for a workout! But, exercise is important and the one thing lots of shift workers struggle with is staying healthy.

Planning a quick swim before work or a long walk on a day off can really help, as can simple exercise routines, such as those found on YouTube.

The important thing is that exercise isn’t just about physical health, but about mental health too. Movement of any kind is antidepressant, even the most gentle forms of exercise, such as yoga or walking can be beneficial.

4. Get your pay packet right

Getting the right pay is important for everyone, but with shift workers it is important to make sure you are being paid correctly.

“In the UK, if you work at least three hours during the night you are technically a night worker which means that you qualify for the national minimum wage and holiday pay,” says Emma Fay, HR Department.

If you work irregular hours, there can also be complications about how those rights work in practice. “Depending on the circumstances, workers may be classed as working and entitled to pay during ‘on call’ hours even if they are asleep or not actively performing duties for their employer.”

Emma is also keen to remind us that holiday pay requires careful calculation to account for variable hourly pay and any applicable shift premiums. Her advice is that you and your employers need to check that your salary is correct and that you are getting the right amount of time off, and if in doubt, speak to a professional who can help you.

5. Try to sleep in a regular pattern

It’s well known that lack of sleep can have long-term effects. For some shift workers, trying to sleep during the day, when there is noise and light, is nearly impossible.
Earphones and eye pads can help, as can blackout curtains to completely darken the room.

Some workers swear by drinking chamomile or lavender tea, whilst others try meditation using app or YouTube. One thing that will help though, is switching off your smartphone!

6. Try and enjoy a social life

People who work unsociable hours, including weekends, can find it very hard to fit in a social life. But according to most shift workers, it’s vital to have time with family and friends. It’s here that quality not quantity needs to be the focus. Time with family and friends helps to recharge the batteries, and reminds you that you are still part of the human race.

It might require more effort than you would usually put in, but it is not impossible and very important for surviving the shift work slog.

Your comments and tips
What are your tips to new shift workers, and how do you cope with the slog? Comment below and let us know what’s the most useful tip you received when you started out as a shift worker.