Shift Work: Finding a Healthy Balance

In today’s busy society, maintaining good physical and mental health while balancing the demands of life and a career can be a struggle. However, when you include a long workday that often starts at a time when everyone else is heading to bed, the battle can be more difficult. Baking Business explores the effect shift work and working nights can have on our mental and physical health, and ways we can counteract the negative effects.

The streets are dark and quiet, and there’s no one about. Except, that is, for the shift workers who are dressed and ready for the day at a time when the majority of the population is fast asleep.

Working odd, long hours is something that comes with the territory when it comes to the baking industry, however, that doesn’t mean the early starts and long days don’t take a toll, both physically and mentally, on the workers.

But is there a way to take positive action to either prevent or minimise the effects of shift work on our physical and mental health?

According to R U OK campaign director Katherine Newton, when it comes to mental health the demands of the baking industry, in conjunction with the long working hours, can initially put industry workers on the back foot. It was with this in mind that R U OK, in conjunction with Allara Learning, developed a free online course targeted specifically at hospitality workers with the aim of educating them to recognise the signs someone they know may be struggling mentally.

The course is in response to a recent survey of hospitality workers that showed 80 per cent of the respondents found mental health issues, such as feeling depressed, anxious or manic, are a challenge currently facing those in the industry.

“Aside from the long working hours, the hospitality industry is an incredibly demanding industry. But I think that while it is hard and tiring, it’s also a very driven and creative industry that has a good network of people and families within it,” Ms Newton said.

“However, while there are good sides, we do know that people are going to struggle with fatigue, or when young ones come in and realise the industry isn’t for them because they thought it would be a bit more glamorous or a bit less shift work than it actually is. And also there are the struggles faced by managers in keeping a cohesive, productive and well team.

“But then we also know it can be these colleagues that can be best placed to spot the signs that someone is struggling mentally.”

Ms Newton said one of the first steps towards maintaining good mental health is increasing social connection and being around people in your world that you can turn to in times of need. However, she said, for bakers this could become very difficult simply because when you’re starting shift work at 11pm or getting home at 5am, chances are your friends and family aren’t going to be awake.

“I think it’s these isolated working hours that can make it very difficult because as the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. Being able to debrief or verbalise what’s on your mind after a shift is vital,” she said.

So, what can be done? Well, the first port of call for your own mental health could be sitting simply down with trusted colleagues and having a bit of a debrief, or on the way home making use of the Lifeline or Men’s Line services that are available.

“I think it’s important for people to know it doesn’t have to be a crisis [to call these services]. Often the callers to these lines just need someone to listen, to be able to vent or say this person is annoying you or that went really well and you’re on a high,” Ms Newton said.

“And then there’s the self management tools. So things like the My Compass app from the Black Dog Institute. You can kind of work out where you are with your mood, and some coping techniques if you’re feeling stressed or anxious.”

Additionally, Ms Newton says it’s vital colleagues be on the look out for each other. When it comes to someone struggling mentally, we often turn to the stereotypical image of someone being withdrawn, quiet and even displaying depressive symptoms.

However, Ms Newton says while this is sometimes the case, slightly more manic or aggressive behaviour can also be a warning sign that something is amiss.

“I think we all automatically turn to a depressed state of mind. Perhaps they’re withdrawn. Perhaps they’re not contributing. Perhaps they’re not even turning up to work, so there’s absenteeism there. Perhaps they’re just not performing to the same standard they normally do or perhaps they’re turning up looking more tired or their hygiene isn’t up to its normal standard. There are all those warning signs,” Ms Newton said.

“But then on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people who are struggling but they may be manic. They may be really exaggerating their emotions and actions or perhaps they fly off the handle and you think ‘woah, that’s not normal for them’. Or perhaps they’re using language that suggests the pressure is rising.

“Look out for those signs as well. It’s not only the sad and withdrawn that we’ve come to know, but the behaviour that’s really out of the ordinary and extreme.”

However, when it comes to maintaining optimal health physical exercise is also of vital importance.

According to Worksafe Queensland, when odd working hours are combined with n excess of stimulants such as caffeine or sugar t can often result in weight gain or even other medical problems such as sleep disorders, diabetes, or heart disease.

Although it’s unlikely someone will finish their shift work at 5am and feel the urge to hit the pavement for a run or head to the gym for a sweat session, moving your body regularly is considered the best way to limit the side effects working odd hours can have on your physical health.

Tips For Maintaining Good Health

Eat according to the time of day,and have a small snack once your shift work has finished so you don’t go to bed hungry. Batch cook healthy meal options and eat them throughout the week and take pre-prepared meals with you to work.

Drink plenty of water and limit your intake of sugary drinks and alcohol, and avoid caffeine at least six hours before sleeping.

Plan exercise around your shifts. Take a walk on your day off, do an exercise video on YouTube or do some gentle yoga once you’re home from work. Any movement has an antidepressant action. Aim for 30 minutes each day.

When it comes to socialising, quality can be better than quantity. Spend time with friends who will understand that you may be tired or your time together may be limited.

Avoid the blue light emitted from your smart phone, the TV or a computer before you go to bed as this can delay the release of melatonin, which helps induce sleep, increase alertness and reset the body’s circadian rhythm.

If you have trouble getting to sleep after work, make sure your bedroom is dark, try meditating, gentle music, or sipping on chamomile tea.

Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.

If you think someone is struggling with depression, make time to ask if they’re OK and to really listen to the response.

If you find you’re still struggling to maintain optimal health, seek out medical advice.

Simply planning a few exercise sessions throughout the week is a great place to start according to the Federal Government’s Department of Health. Or if time is truly prohibitive, instead aiming for smaller bouts of physical activity, such as 10-15 minutes at a time, throughout the day, or investigating opportunities to be physically active at home whether that’s by using exercise videos, bodyweight exercises such as push ups, squats and lunges, or even just housework such as gardening or vacuuming.

Black Dog Institute director of psychological services and senior clinical psychologist Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar recommends to start small, with one hour of exercise spread across a week and then slowly building it up.

“It’s much easier to get started on an exercise program if you do things you enjoy. So if you don’t enjoy group sports, for example, don’t join a football team,” she said.

“Exercising with a friend is always a good idea too. Locking in plans keeps you accountable and it might mean you get to see someone you have been meaning to make time for.

“You might even turn the exercise session into a way to talk to that person about how you’re getting on, how you’re feeling and maybe getting some advice from them in return.”


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  1. Charli Smith

    16 March

    To become a physical therapist, takes about 6-8 years, depends if you do the masters or doctorate program.
    http://terre.com.au/

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