Supporting the Health and Wellness of Healthcare Shift Workers

Shift work has always been a vital component of the healthcare service. While it is an essential practice for ensuring that patients receive around-the-clock care, it can have a negative impact on the health and well-being of staff. Health workers’ shifts are organised in patterns where workers take over from each other to provide continuity of services.

Shift work in healthcare is necessary for patients, and in some respects, benefits staff and enables them to achieve a good work-life balance. It is, however, a system that requires careful management to minimise its negative impact on employees.

This article considers the risks of shift working to healthcare workers and suggests tips that organisations can take to protect workers and prioritise their health and well-being.


What are the negative effects of shift work?

Health. Shift work has the greatest impact on the health of night workers. Night shifts interfere with circadian rhythms and affect peoples ‘body clock’ which influences their ability to fall asleep when tired and then wake up at regular times. Sleep deprivation is a significant contributing factor to poor mental and physical health. Read about the knock-on effects of sleep disorders below:

Irritability and poor concentration. Fatigue affects people’s mental alertness and how they interact with others. This can impact their relationships at home and work. It can also cause staff to be more forgetful and make mistakes.

Obesity. Poor sleep leads to lower energy levels. This often means exhausted workers are less likely to prepare a healthy meal after work. They will often give in to carb cravings and prioritise rest time over exercise, which results in weight gain.

Higher risks of Type 2 diabetes. Shift workers are more prone to the onset of type 2 diabetes and digestive disorders. Shift work has been linked to lower resistance to insulin. Reduced access to healthy food at night can result in poor food choices which is another factor.

Cardiovascular illness. Evidence indicates that shift workers are associated with higher incidences of cardiovascular diseases. The reasons suggested are disruptions to circadian rhythm, challenges they face in exercising regularly, and the dependence on high-sugar snacks to stay awake at night.

“Shift Work Maladaption Syndrome or Shift Work Sleep Disorder is where shift work is leaving the worker so sleepy that they fear for their safety on the job.” Beverly Beuermann-King

Anxiety and Depression. Certainly, shift workers often lack the opportunities to experience restorative sleep – an essential for positive mental health. Impairments in cognition can affect self-esteem and confidence in making judgements with shift workers often feeling moral distress when they can’t perform at their best.

Certainly, working in healthcare, where people’s health and lives are at stake, means reduced sleep quality is a huge concern for workers.


Impacts on other areas

Social life. Shift workers often miss out on attending special occasions with friends and family and miss out on social gatherings and important events. They often report feeling too tired to go out at night and catch up with friends. Single shift workers report finding it difficult to meet people and form relationships outside work.

Hobbies. Shift workers often miss out on activity clubs and regular meet-ups. Active workers often find it difficult to attend athletic club meets and train with others. Work often interferes with their training patterns and makes consistent training more challenging.

Night classes. Shift workers lose out on the possibility of attending evening classes due to their work commitments. Some have even reported missing out on work training possibilities and CPD, which sometimes fall during irregular shifts.


What are the top tips for supporting the wellness of shift workers?

The World Health Organisation is urging companies globally to commit to the prioritisation of the ‘mental health and well-being’ of their staff. Burnout has consequences on the entire workforce and addressing employee burnout is major across all sectors. Overburdened healthcare workers risk their health and often feel forced into quitting completely or opting for early retirement leading to further staff shortages.

Clearly, supporting and valuing employees is of paramount importance today. While feeling valued in any workplace is proven to boost worker engagement and reduce absenteeism, in the health sector, it should be a top priority. Raising health and well-being standards at work is directly linked to making the healthcare environment safer for everyone and needs to be approached on an organisational level.


What are the 9 best tips for supporting the well-being of healthcare shift workers in 2023?

It’s crucial to understand the challenges faced by healthcare shift workers and identify strategies to support their well-being. In this section, we suggest 9 top tips and strategies to support health and safety today.

1. Compliance. At a basic level, ensure that your organisation complies with Working Time Regulations. There are reasons night workers’ times and hours are restricted, and these are to protect the workers and patients under their care. Consider software to manage and implement an e-roster to keep it fair and compliant. Monitor swift swaps between staff and watch the timing so staff don’t take on consecutive night shifts.

2. Make sure staff take regulatory breaks. They need them, and a busy shift should not mean they lose their entitlement. Encourage staff to set up reminders and phone notifications of when their breaks are due. Make sure there is a bed in the staff room where staff can have naps throughout the shift.

3. Carry out regular risk assessments. Document and review any incidents or workplace errors and consider how to prevent them from recurring. Keep shifts as short as possible. Organise the workload strategically and minimise the need to do mentally demanding work very late at night, where possible.

4. Provide drinking water and healthy snacks. Ensure there’s a fridge for staff to store their own healthy food during shifts. Stock the vending machine with healthy food and nutritious cold drinks. Patients like to show their appreciation for staff by leaving them chocolate, and biscuits and encouraging them to donate fruit baskets or healthy treats instead.

5. Always schedule CPD and training provisions at suitable times for shift workers. They often miss out, so try to be proactive and encourage their participation. Include training in fatigue management, stress reduction techniques, and strategies for maintaining work-life balance. Providing workers with the tools and skills to manage their workload and promote their well-being can go a long way in supporting their mental and physical health.

6. Communicate with staff. Check-in with them and get feedback on the challenges they face at work. It makes staff feel valued and can help employers support them. Offer quick questionnaires and online surveys to keep communication channels open.

7. Support Mental Health. The high-stress nature of healthcare work can have a significant impact on the mental health of shift workers. Providing access to mental health resources such as counselling, therapy, and support groups can help workers cope with the challenges of their job and reduce the risk of burnout. Keep them informed of any initiatives or programmes they can join. Raise awareness of Mental Health tools and resources. Consider investing in digital wellness solutions that staff can access on demand.

8. Promote Physical Health. Healthcare shift workers may struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle due to their irregular schedules. Consider offering a free meditation app or club membership option. Consider organising a charity walk or run for staff.

9. Foster a positive workplace culture. A positive workplace culture can go a long way in supporting the well-being of healthcare shift workers. This includes promoting teamwork and ensuring staff know who to confide in if conflict arises at work.

While finding a well-being strategy that resonates with all staff is challenging, the benefits are worthwhile. Successful well-being initiatives help attract staff and keep them engaged. Positive well-being strategies are also key factors in boosting retention rates.

If you’re interested in finding highly qualified, professional staff for your organisation, contact Access Healthcare today.