Have you ever considered that the hours you work at your job can actually make you sick?

Researchers at PLoS Medicine have found a connection between work patterns and good health. In a new editorial published in the December issue of the journal, it is revealed that there is a clear association between people who work a rotating schedule and them having a higher potential of getting type 2 diabetes or becoming obese.

Shift work is defined as an employment practice designed to provide services 24 hours of the clock every day of the week. Shift workers include nurses and factory or warehouse workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 million Americans work full time on evening shift, night shift, rotating shifts, or other employer arranged irregular schedules.

Due to the inconsistent nature of shift work, it is believed that it is easier and more convenient for workers to access junk food or select unhealthier diet options, which can lead to serious health issues.

Editors argue this is the reason that work patterns should be an official occupational hazard, and be considered a direct link to having unhealthy sugar levels and excessive weight gain. They also believe that the Government should become actively involved in spreading the link between work style and health.

TheCheckup spoke to one of the lead authors of the editorial, Virginia Barbour of PloS Medicine, to learn more about the relationship between work practices, diet and health.

Why do you believe the link between shift work and health hasn’t been heavily examined in the past?

Although there has been anecdotal evidence of the health effects of shift work, much of the best evidence needs to come in the form of epidemiological studies that look at cohorts of workers over many years – for example the Nurses’ Health studies which we cite as the reason for writing this editorial and which we published a paper from earlier this month started collecting data in the 1970s. It therefore takes time to collect and analyze high quality, hard evidence on the risks of shift work in these cohorts and to come up with reliable conclusions.

What do you believe it’s going to take for the government to one day create legislation that improves the health of consumers, and makes it easier for shift workers to eat healthier?

We think there is a need for a change in thinking – for governments to recognize that shift work is, for many workers, essentially their normal pattern of working. For example in one of the cohorts in the paper by Frank Hu and colleagues, 11.3 percent of nurses reported doing shift work for greater that 10 years. Hence, any advice given to the population in general on healthy eating and lifestyles needs to accept that a substantial proportion of the workforce will be working in shifts, and advice and legislative action from governments needs to reflect that.

What are some of the things shift workers can do to improve their eating habits?

Shift workers need to understand that their work patterns are a substantial risk factor for poor health outcomes, ie that shiftwork is not just inconvenient and anti-social. Hence, they need to make a positive effort to ensure they incorporate a balanced diet and exercise into their lifestyle, despite the hours, and ideally discuss these needs with their employers.

What role should employers play in ensuring that their shift workers are eating healthy?

Employers need to take unhealthy eating very seriously, and look at unhealthy foods in the same way that they would other environmental hazards. They should consider what the implications are of exposing their employees to high levels of such hazards. For example vending machines and fast food restaurants are very common in the foyers of hospitals everywhere, whereas healthy eating options are often scarce. It is possible to make a change if there is a will. The example, the Cleveland Clinic, which we cite, has made a positive effort to help their employees by making it easier to behave healthier than not.