Shiftwork has become a common practice in today's business world. Whether it's a 24-hour operation at a factory or a two-shift rotation at a retail outlet, more employees are expected to work nontraditional hours.
But is the schedule costing you more in absenteeism, accidents and lower productivity than it should be?
"Shiftwork can really have detrimental effects if it is done poorly," warns Ed Coburn, publisher of the Working Nights newsletter. "In the last 15 years or so, scientists have really developed an understanding of the physiological effects and what can be done about it. If it is done well, there doesn't have to be any significant effects on job performance."
Shift schedules that work
The basic rule of rotating shifts is that they should rotate forward: Work the day shift, then the evening shift, then nights. The body is better able to adapt to a forward rotation, though it's still fairly common to find companies that rotate shifts backward.
"Employees often prefer a backward rotation, because it gives them an extra eight hours between days off," says Coburn. "Changing a popular schedule can be very difficult and cause labor-relations nightmares."
Another common mistake is having a time and pay policy in which retirement pay is based on the average of the last three years of take-home pay. Just before retirement, older workers bulk up on overtime and work late shifts to increase their pay.
"These workers are not well suited for this duty," notes Coburn. "As you age, you become less flexible, and shiftwork becomes harder to do. To have this kind of policy isn't taking into consideration the health and safety impact. It may cause an at-risk population to be fatigued at work."
Many shiftworkers also have digestive problems. This is caused by having meals at times when the body is not prepared to eat. The human body has hundreds of circadian rhythms that regulate when you are tired and when you are ready to eat, among other things.
"When you get past 10:30 or 11 p.m., our stomachs shut down," says Coburn. "Our body temperatures starts falling and, as a result, our bodies don't digest well in the middle of the night."
Fat, greasy foods are hard to digest, and should be avoided late at night. But these are the kinds of foods most readily available to shiftworkers-pizza, cheeseburgers and fries, vending-machine fare and carbonated drinks. The ulcer rates for shiftworkers are higher than for other employees.
Beating the clock
There are a number of countermeasures to reduce the negative effects of shiftwork. The most important step to take is to educate your supervisors about what impact shiftwork may have so they know what signs to look for and what problems are common. It also has to be a cooperative effort between the employer and the employees, and education efforts can help everyone.
"You can implement excellent policies, but if employees are only getting three hours of sleep, or staying up too late, then whatever the company does will be subverted," notes Coburn "There are individual measures that can be taken to improve not only health and safety, but the quality of life. Family communication can be a problem even when you're off the job, because when you get home, everyone is asleep or at school. Educating people is an important first step."
Employers should address issues such as eating, when to sleep, how to sleep, and communicating better with family members.
"When we refer to shiftworker lifestyle training, we don't mean it in a 'Big Brother' way," says Coburn. "Shiftwork is not just a job, there's a lifestyle that goes along with it. Companies train employees to learn how to handle the demands of the job, but one of the biggest demands is modifying their lifestyle. Few companies pay attention to that."
Employers often make the mistake of assuming that a new schedule will fix any problems, but the solution lies more in how you go about dealing with the issues that arise from the schedule rather than the schedule itself.
Reducing fatigue and stress
According to a the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 15.5 million people in the United States work nontraditional hours such as evenings, nights and rotating shifts.
Individuals who perform shiftwork can experience a disruption of the body's internal clock, resulting in sleep loss. Excessive lack of sleep can make it difficult for employees to concentrate, increasing the possibility of error or job-related injury. Digestive problems and stress are also part of the picture.
NIOSH suggests the following:
- As appropriate, consider altering shiftwork schedules, such as having permanent night shifts, avoiding rapid shift changes and adjusting the shift duration to the workload. When changing an employee's work schedule, aspects of the worker's job and home life should be considered.
- Schedule heavy or demanding work at times when workers are most alert or at peak performance. The use of bright lights can enhance alertness.
- Provide training or awareness programs for new shiftworkers and ensure that health care and counseling services are available to employees. Training should encompass methods for employees to cope with adjusting to shiftwork, such as establishing a sleep routine, and affirming the importance of proper exercise, diet and relaxation routines to minimize stress.