How can shift workers stay alert and healthy?

Whether a worker takes a full meal, snack or no food at all will influence how drowsy they feel

How can shift workers stay alert and healthy?

The eating habits of shift workers can influence their ability to stay alert on the job, a new university study claims.

Whether a worker takes a full meal, snack or no food at all will purportedly determine how drowsy they feel while working at night.

Out of the three eating conditions, taking a simple snack was said to have reduced the impact of sleepiness and fatigue on shift workers the most, according to Charlotte Gupta, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Australia who led the research.

“In today’s 24/7 economy, working the night shift is increasingly common, with many industries – health care, aviation, transport and mining – requiring employees to work around the clock,” Gupta said.

“As a night shift worker, finding ways to manage your alertness when your body is naturally primed for sleep can be really challenging.”

READ MORE: Unpredictable shifts can affect employee happiness

After a week of simulated shift work, participants in the experiment were asked to report how drowsy and hungry they felt, as well as how their stomach reacted to their food intake or lack of it.

Healthy vs less-healthy snacks

Participants who consumed only a light snack, such as an apple and muesli bar, felt less sleepy than those who ate a meal, such as a sandwich, in addition to the apple and muesli bar, and those who skipped meals altogether.

Those who ate a meal on the night shift also claimed to have discomfort and a feeling of fullness.

Considering how more than 200,000 Australians are regularly assigned to the evening or night shift, Gupta said she wants to help those on night duty to stay alert, safe and healthy.

“Lots of shift workers snack multiple times over a night shift, and understanding the different macronutrient balances is important, especially as many report consuming foods high in fat, such as chips, chocolate and fast foods,” Gupta said.

“We’re keen to assess how people feel and perform after a healthy snack versus a less-healthy, but potentially more satisfying snack like chocolate or lollies.”

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