The impact of shift work

Shift work puts you at a greater risk of weight gain, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  With data emerging linking obesity with poorer COVID-19 outcomes, improving health outcomes for shift workers, including our frontline health care workers, is the focus of a study by Monash University.

Shift work requires individuals to eat and sleep out of synchronisation with their body clock.  Routines can be difficult to keep,  leading to disrupted eating and sleeping habits, with the ‘circadian disruption’ having metabolic consequences and increased disease risk.

With Victorian data showing almost 20 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Victoria were identified in health care workers, developing health and weight loss strategies for this group is very important.

Monash University’s SWIFt study, led by Associate Professor Maxine Bonham, is following night shift workers on a six month weight loss program, followed by a year long weight maintenance program, in consultation with a dietitian.  Participants have their blood glucose levels monitored, insulin measured and body measurements taken throughout the study period.

Over the last five years Associate Professor Bonham, from the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food, and her team have been working on improving health outcomes for shift workers.

“Keeping a focus on the importance of good nutrition will have implications for the management of future pandemics, and not just in health care workers, but ensuring we have a well-informed and health-aware work-force is imperative,” she said.

“Whilst as a population we have, in the last six months, dealt with a number of new lifestyle behaviours with the introduction of  compulsory face masks, social distancing and hand washing, prioritising metabolic health seems to have been lost.”

Even small decreases in weight improve some metabolic responses, with previous studies showing that changes can occur within 6-8 weeks of behaviour change.  Sustaining that behaviour change can be challenging for shift workers due to disrupted routines and highlights the importance of the SWIFt study to examine the effectiveness of different weight loss strategies.

A SWIFt participant and nurse who has worked with COVID-19 patients says: ‘As health care professionals, we all have a role to play regarding COVID 19. We know the research suggests that having a higher BMI is a factor in the recovery of our patients. We can be role models for our patients and reduce our own weight…. albeit small amounts’.

To participate or learn more about the SWIFt study click here.

To read more about the study, visit Monash Lens.

SWIFt is funded by the National Health and Research Council (NHMRC) and is a joint partnership between Monash University and the University of South Australia.