New safefood report highlights effects of shift work on what people eat

Skipping meals, lack of physical activity and insufficient sleep most commonly reported behaviours

Monday 24 October, 2016. A new report¹ into the habits of people who work shifts has found more than 2 in 3 (67%) reported skipping meals on work days and almost 8 in 10 (78%) reported getting insufficient sleep. The report by safefood also found that in some employment sectors, 1 in 3 shift workers were smokers, a rate significantly higher than those in the general population.

The study also found that lack of breaks; shift patterns; poor availability of food; inadequate canteen opening times; and tiredness due to long working hours were the most common barriers reported by shift workers to leading a healthier lifestyle.

Research lead Dr Clare Corish, Associate Professor at the School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science, University College Dublin said “For this research we looked at existing studies in this area as well as surveying² more than 1,000 people to better understand the factors that influence their food and related lifestyle habits while working shift hours”.

“What’s noticeable from the research is how skipping meals, inadequate physical activity and insufficient sleep are commonly noted by shift workers as behaviours that impact upon them. We’re also seeing how the different workplace sectors play a role in those behaviours and how complex that can be – health & social care workers have poorer access to healthier food options and often an erratic, stressful work schedule but in general have healthier patterns of food consumption and lower rates of smoking. By comparison, the manufacturing sector has more defined work patterns and breaks and are more likely to have workplace facilities available but higher rates of smoking. Access to unhealthy vending machines is also seen as a negative influence by workers”.

Gender and age were also identified by the report as being influencing factors – men reported poorer dietary habits than women and were more likely to report being overweight. Younger shift workers reported poorer dietary habits and higher alcohol consumption rates than older workers. Older workers reported poorer sleep patterns and lower levels of physical activity.

Welcoming the report, Ray Dolan, CEO safefood said “It has been long assumed that shift work has a negative impact on people’s health and increases the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. With the publication of this research, we’re beginning to address an important gap in our knowledge of both the barriers and potential public health interventions to improving the food and related lifestyle habits of people working shifts.”

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Director, Human Health & Nutrition, safefood added that the findings highlight that a number of targeted approaches are required to address the range of issues raised by shift workers.

It’s clear that we need to support younger and newer shift workers in order to enable them to adapt to shift hours. This will help create healthier habits they will hopefully take with them through their career. It is acknowledged that healthy eating advice can’t follow a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and needs to account for the specific environment of shift workers. Key issues are providing both time and facilities to eat healthily during a work shift and promoting healthy physical activity and sleep habits”.

“Smoking and a smoking culture at work are related to poor dietary habits and this research backs the need for workplace initiatives to help with smoking cessation. The role of employers in these issues can’t be underestimated. Shift workers deserve improved eating facilities, whether that’s canteens, work kitchens or healthier vending machines, and reasonable time to take breaks. Both parties have a stake in having a healthier workforce and the benefits that brings.”

The all island research was led by UCD in partnership with Ulster University and Dublin Institute of Technology. The report "Managing Food on Shift Workis available to download from the safefood website.

- Ends -

For further information or to request an interview, please contact

Julie Carroll / Dermot Moriarty


Tel: 00353 1 448 0600

+353 86 150 3047 (Julie) / +353 86 381 1034 (Dermot)

Amy Pilgrim / Emma Walsh 


‚ÄčTel: +353 1 669 0030

Mob: +353 87 317 0897 (Emma)

Editor’s notes

All workers were drawn from the three employment sectors with the biggest shift workforce; Accommodation & Food Services; Health & Social Care and; Manufacturing.

It is estimated that shift workers make up 15% of the Irish workforce. (Health & Safety Authority, 2012)


¹The report comprised three phases – a literature review to inform the methodology; a qualitative series of focus groups; and a telephone poll of more than 1,300 shift workers.

²The survey by Millward Brown Ulster polled more than 1,300 shift workers on the island of Ireland Additionally, 15 focus groups comprising more than 100 shift workers were held.


Overview of reported health behaviours

Workplace experiences

Main issues

Accommodation and food services sector

67% skip meals work days

58% agree they get adequate breaks

Long hours, lack of breaks

35% smokers

58% happy with healthy options

Erratic routine

28% high risk drinkers

41% agree WPE facilitates healthy lifestyle

Access to alcohol in WPE

51% inadequate PA

62% have access to canteen

Access to unhealthy foods, leads to constant grazing

60% insufficient sleep



40% overweight



Health and social care sector

64% skip meals work days

52% agree they get adequate breaks

Long hours, lack of breaks

26% smokers

43% happy with healthy options

Occupational stress, heavy workload

24% high risk drinkers

37% agree WPE facilitates healthy lifestyle

Lack of time & energy

60% inadequate PA

61% have access to canteen

Poor access to out of hours food facilities

67% insufficient sleep


Erratic routine

51% overweight



Manufacturing sector 

54% skip meals work days

71% agree they get adequate breaks

Lack of time

30% smokers

46% happy with healthy options

Erratic routine

15% high risk drinkers

49% agree WPE facilitates healthy lifestyle

Lack of motivation

62% inadequate PA

69% have access to canteen

Access to unhealthy foods

78% insufficient sleep



64% overweight