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The impact of irregular shift work and ways to improve alertness, happiness and health

Jan 20, 2021.

A career as a healthcare professional is incredibly rewarding, but with irregular shift work that is not your usual 9-5 being the norm, they can take their toll – especially if you’re new to them! So, what can be done to help our healthcare heroes feel more alert, happy and healthy when working irregular work shift patterns?– Keep reading to find out!

The True Health Effects of Rotating Shift Work

Before we start, it’s important to understand exactly what irregular working shifts do to the human body. We act towards a natural circadian rhythm which is tuned to where we live in the world, the time the sun rises and sets and to the chemical changes that occur between waking and sleeping. Shift work that takes place at irregular times outside our usual daily and nightly routines can often negatively affect this rhythm and the clearest way to describe this is how we feel when we’re jet lagged.

Shift workers are perhaps most at risk from these more negative effects and can be left feeling sleep deprived, exhausted and unwell. This of course isn’t just bad for them, but this also increases the chances of patient safety and care being negatively impacted.

What health conditions can potentially be caused by irregular working shifts?

  • Fatigue and sleep disorders
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Digestive disorders
  • and Mental ill health

What can be done to prevent these health issues?

Whilst working an irregular shift pattern can be a shock to the system, the negative effects can be dramatically reduced by having an effective, well-managed approach to working outside of your body’s regular rhythm; considerably reducing the risk of potential harm to both staff and patients.

Firstly, try and book in for forward-rotating shifts when you start from early to late as they’re less disruptive to the internal body clock.

Secondly, you should limit the duration of your shifts to no longer than 13-hours (including breaks). Not only is it important to rest in between breaks but it’s also important to rest in between shifts. The Working Time Regulations 1998 requires a minimum of 11-hours continuous daily rest and if it’s not adhered to by the employer then compensatory rest must be provided.

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5 ways to improve alertness at work

On some shifts, such as nights and very early mornings, you may find it difficult to remain alert. So, to reduce the your feelings of tirdness and remain alert, try the following:

  • Take a moderate exercise before starting work
  • Use daylight bulbs that mimic natural light
  • Take regular short breaks during the shift if possible
  • Get up and walk around during breaks
  • Do more simulating work when you get the most tired

What can be done in between shifts to improve quality of life?

Healthy Eating

Working irregular shifts can mean that your eating patterns are also irregular. As a result, it can be hard to ensure you’re fuelling your body with the right nutrients to run properly. To ensure you’re eating properly and you can do your job efficiently and effectively, try the following:

  • Make an weekly eating plan; knowing what you’re eating and when will prevent you from skipping meals and grabbing something unhealthy when you’re on the go
  • Eat smaller meals, more often; this will help you keep your energy levels up – helping you be more productive throughout your shift.


When it comes to finding time to work out and exercise, you’ll probably experience one of four feelings that may stop you:

  1. Exhaustion – let’s be honest, after working a night/early shift, you won’t get as much sleep as normal and so, when it comes to exercising you may feel exhausted and just want to sleep.
  2. Lack of time – life as a healthcare shift worker means that your work schedule is always changing and you may also have other responsibilities such as family, food preparation and socailising .
  3. Too hungry – one popular reason for not excersing is that when the time comes to it, you simply don’t have the energy or have not eaten.
  4. Down time – last but not least, after working hard, you simply “don’t want to” and would prefer some well-deserved down time watching Netflix.

However, it’s important to remember that exercise is essential for care of our body internally, externally and most importantly, for our mental health.

You should note that once you change your mindset and don’t see exercise as a chore, it’ll become most beneficial. You don’t need to go to a gym to exercise, you simply need to find something that suits you and your personality type: dancing, squash, swimming, HIIT, pilates – there are thousands to choose from!

It’s not just your physical fitness that’ll benefit, either.  Working out and being active for 30 minutes or more helps your body release pent-up stress and also releases mood-boosting endorphins, which is why it’s a powerful antidote to stress, anxiety and depression.


No day in healthcare is ever the same, and they can be intense! This is why when it comes to your down-time it’s important to not only sleep;  but to switch off from everything at work to focus on you alone. One way to successfully do so is to actually schedule in your “relax time” and why not take up a hobby that you love to allow yourself to truly switch off?

Our healthcare heroes dedicate their lives to saving and caring for others each and every single day and whilst the entire UK nation is grateful beyond words – it’s important that they take time out to care for themselves, helping them to feel happy and healthy.

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