MRO Magazine

On the clock: Optimizing shift work for well-being and productivity

The global food economy never sleeps.

January 31, 2023 | By The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

Photo: dusanpetkovic1 / adobe stock

Photo: dusanpetkovic1 / adobe stock

Products are ordered online and shipped immediately from anywhere in the world. Grocery stores, restaurants and food service operations require a steady supply to keep their patrons fed, making shift work a necessity in food and beverage manufacturing. A consequence of this always-on economy is workers in all areas of food production are exposed to the strains and health effects that come with working at all hours, with changing schedules that make it difficult to ever truly adapt.

It is widely accepted that shift work can have negative effects on workers’ personal health and safety. However, there are ways to mitigate some of these effects.

All about shift work
Shift work is work that is scheduled outside the typical daytime hours (the nine to five). Schedules can vary from one workplace to another, and workers may rotate through shifts or remain on a single shift (for example, permanent nights).

Circadian rhythms are our body’s biological clocks that manage various internal functions throughout a 24-hour day, using daylight and darkness as cues. Working during the night and sleeping during the day is contrary to our natural rhythm. This mismatch is what can make sleeping difficult for shift workers.


There are several risks associated with shift work. Night shift workers face a higher risk of workplace injury than morning or afternoon shift workers, and they’re likely to have shorter or lower-quality sleep compared to regular day workers. Studies show that night shift workers have a higher risk of breast, prostate, colon, and rectum cancers, and an increased risk of heart disease, while others indicate a higher risk of pre-term delivery for pregnant workers, gastrointestinal disorders, and mental health-related problems.

What employers can do
While the nature of food manufacturing and engineering makes shift work necessary, there are ways to minimize the negative effects on workers.

Schedule optimization is key. Don’t rush through shift changes. “Rotating forward” (morning – afternoon – night) is often shown to be easier to adapt to than rotating backwards or having irregular shift changes. Where possible, set shifts in consultation with the worker.

Providing time off at socially advantageous times like the weekends can help maintain a worker’s mental health and work-life balance.

Also, consider different lengths for shifts and keep overtime to a minimum. Examine your start-end times. Are workers leaving the facility only to be stuck in morning rush hour traffic?
Schedules should be regular and predictable and morning shifts should not start too early. The earlier workers must get up, the less sleep they get. Night shifts should not be too long and should end as early as possible. This way, workers can get more undisturbed sleep.

Tips for workers
There are steps that shift workers can take to help preserve their physical and mental health.
Afternoon workers should have a meal in the middle of the day instead of the middle of their work shift, while night workers should eat lightly throughout their shift. Always remember to relax during meals and allow time for digestion, and don’t forget to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water.

To improve sleep quality, establish a bedtime schedule and routine that is quiet and relaxing. Also, having a comfortable space to rest during the day is also key, while some may find the use of foam earplugs and good quality blinds or blackout curtains especially helpful.
Knowing that shift work can be more challenging for the body, pay close attention to your physical fitness and try to reduce your stress.

It’s important to prioritize social time to maintain regular contact and relationships while working shifts. Schedule at least one daily meal with family or close friends and keep in touch with them throughout the day. Setting time aside for special people in your life can also be helpful to stay connected.

Along with the advantages of schedule flexibility, shift work brings health and safety risks associated with working non-traditional and rotating hours. Recognizing and taking steps toward minimizing these risks can be beneficial to both workers and employers.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness. Visit for more safety tips.


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