HEALTHY food should be readily available to hospital staff and care workers to ensure they make healthier lifestyle choices, researchers have said.

Smoking cessation programmes among unregistered care workers are "urgently required", they said, after a study at Edinburgh Napier University found that 37 per cent of these staff were smokers, compared to 21% of the general population and 18% among nurses.

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Overall, the study found that care workers in Scotland - who typically include home carers, nursing auxiliaries and healthcare assistants - had significantly less healthy lifestyles that other healthcare staff.

The study, published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, found that 82% did not eat enough fruit and veg, and 43% exceeded recommended alcohol intakes and did not meet exercise guidelines.

Richard Kyle, head of public health at Edinburgh Napier University, said: “That our study found so many of our care workers don’t meet public health guidelines around smoking, drinking, exercise and diet is deeply worrying because we know that these four lifestyle behaviours are linked to diseases such as cancer, diabetes and stroke.

“But it’s important we don’t start pointing fingers of blame. We hear regularly from care workers about the pressures of their role and overstretched healthcare services. It’s almost inevitable that this takes its toll on care workers’ own health.”

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Although the study found that nurses in Scotland on average had healthier habits than the general population, the researchers still found that 17% were smokers, half exceeded weekly alcohol consumption guidelines, 46% are not getting enough exercise and 68% are falling short of the recommended fruit and veg intake.

The findings are based on surveys covering 471 nurses, 433 other healthcare professionals, 813 care workers and 17,103 people with non-health related occupations.

The authors said fruits and vegetables should be promoted in healthcare workplaces, over snacks high in calories, sugar and salt.

They added that previous studies had "identified a lack of access to healthy food in the workplace, especially for those working night shifts, as one reason for unhealthy diet. Moreover, it is known that shift work negatively influences dietary and exercise habits and that nurses experiencing work-related stress engage in emotional eating."

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Eileen McKenna, Royal College of Nursing, Associate Director, said: “These figures are worrying, but hardly surprising, as we know that nursing staff across health and social care are under a huge amount of pressure at work.

"Stress, low pay and regularly having to work more than contracted hours means that their own wellbeing suffers.

“Nursing staff know all too well about the impact of an unhealthy lifestyle – they see it day in, day out in their job.

"But finding time to eat properly, take regular exercise or change unhealthy habits is not easy at the end of a long and stressful shift.

“Employers need to do more to ensure there are enough staff to enable proper breaks and that healthy food options are easily accessible, particularly for those on night shift."

Dr Donald Macaskill, CEO of Scottish Care, which represents independent care providers, said he welcomed the research for highlighting an "often overlooked" issue of "how we care for our care staff".

He added: "Care workers play an absolutely vital role in supporting thousands of Scotland’s citizens with complex needs, every hour of every day.

"However, caring is a very difficult job often undertaken in challenging circumstances and it does not surprise Scottish Care that care workers are sometimes making unhealthy lifestyle choices as a result of stress, workload and lower pay.

"We would see this as an opportunity to call again for the independent care sector to be funded properly and for society to recognise the significant positive impact that carers have in our communities."