THEY spend their shifts looking after the health and wellbeing of others ... but Scotland's care workers now need targeted action to improve their unhealthy lifestyles, new research claims.

According to newly-published work led by Edinburgh Napier University, more than one third of this workforce – including home carers, nursing auxiliaries and healthcare assistants – smokes, two fifths exceed recommended alcohol limits and do not meet exercise guidelines.

Only one fifth eats five portions of fruit and veg a day, it is claimed.

Richard Kyle, head of Population & Public Health at the 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.

“We need to do more to support our army of care workers across Scotland who day-in day-out provide essential care to people in their homes and our hospitals. This starts by supporting care workers to stop smoking and to eat more healthily, but it also means asking harder questions about whether their pay and working conditions reflect the value we all place on the vital work they do.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing and follow previous work by the team which highlighted the high rate of overweight nurses in Scotland.

This was said to be "especially concerning" due to the role of healthcare professionals in promoting healthy lifestyles to patients.

The team analysed five years worth of data from the Scottish Health Survey, with the data for healthcare workers compared to those of nurses, other medical professionals and those outwith the sector.

The paper stated: "Our study showed a ‘gradient’ in terms of non-adherence to public health guidelines among healthcare professionals. Other healthcare professionals had healthier behaviour than nurses, and, in turn, nurses showed healthier behaviours than care workers.”

Emphasising a desire for intervention, it stated: “Care workers had the highest rate of smoking and the lowest intake of fruits and vegetables.

"Efforts to increase access to healthy food should be prioritised and smoking cessation programmes among care workers are urgently required.”

The problem was attributed, in part, to working conditions, with researchers noting that "shift work negatively influences dietary and exercise habits and that nurses experiencing work-related stress engage in emotional eating".

Elaine McKenna of the Royal College of Nursing said the results were "hardly surprising", adding: “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."