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HSE: Nightworkers need help to change their way of life

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The Health and Safety Executive has published research which looks at a method of helping those working on night shifts cope with their lifestyle. The disruption to sleeping, eating, social and domestic routines that comes with night shiftworking can pose a chronic risk to mental and physical health.

Scientific literature suggests that giving people information on how to cope with the demands of night working may reduce the health costs associated with it. Educational self-help booklets or material are a popular method of getting messages across that aim to produce a change in knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards a target issue.

There are many self-help guides aimed at shiftworkers, but until now nothing was known about their impact on changing behaviour. The HSE commissioned a study of the issue, examining the effects of a self-help booklet, The Shiftworkers Guide, which aims to improve their health and the way they adapt to shifts using coping strategies.

Advice in the guide includes:


  • Don’t eat fats, red meat and spicy food in the middle of the night
  • Wind down after a shift by having a bath or shower
  • Use a telephone answering machine
  • Turn off the doorbell
  • Avoid sleeping pills

The research was carried out on a sample of shiftworking officers from Lothian and Borders Police. They were given a copy of the self-help guide and then asked to fill in a questionnaire to establish the extent to which the guide had helped change their attitudes and health-related behaviour for coping with shiftwork.

Overall the results showed that changes in attitudes and behaviour were negligible. It is not clear whether this is because of the nature of the information, its mode of delivery, its uptake or the difficulties individuals may have found in changing deep-seated patterns of, for example, sleeping and eating behaviour.

Trevor Shaw, head of the Human Performance and Fatigue Section of HSE’s Health Directorate said: “HSE is increasingly concerned about the health & safety aspects of shiftworking and is keen to explore ways of mitigating the effects. This research suggests that simply distributing advice to shiftworkers in the hope it will influence their coping behaviour is not enough.”

The results indicate that organisations need to adopt a more proactive and intensive programme of behaviour change to educate shiftworkers on how to improve their health, rather than simply giving them information. This could involve counselling sessions. There should also be an organisation-wide approach to reduce exposure to the detrimental aspects of particular characteristics of shiftwork.

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