Tips for Managing Night & Swing Shift Workers

Employees Working the Night ShiftOn Christmas Eve, Santa and his elves won’t be the only ones working a night shift!  There are approximately 15 million people in the United States doing shift work and working all hours of the day and night.

There are more shift workers today than ever before.  You may very well have shift workers in your business.

Shift workers have special needs.  Check out our guide to getting the most out of these employees!

Who are shift workers?

We typically think of night workers as working in security, transportation, or manufacturing jobs, but the truth is, in our fast-paced 24/7/365 world, shift workers can be found in all professions and industries.

Health care professionals, hotel workers, IT professionals, call center employees, grocery workers, pharmacists … the list is endless.

The fact is, any one of us could find ourselves tomorrow working in a position that required us to do shift work, including working the graveyard shift.

What is a shift worker?

What is a shift worker?  It is commonly defined as anyone who works outside the hours of 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

There are many variations of shifts.  The common shifts are days, swing, and nights.  However, creative options include 10 or 12 hour shifts coupled with several days off in between, 24 hour shifts, and even people working 7 or 10 days in a row.

How shift work impacts employees:

Since the industrial revolution, researchers have been studying shift work and its impacts on workers.  Many studies have been conducted, and it’s pretty clear that shift work can be tough on employees.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that shift workers are more likely to be injured on the job.
  • The likeliest times for accidents occur between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., followed by midnight to 6 a.m.
  • Several studies have also shown that shift workers may be more prone to chronic illnesses and health conditions.
  • There are indications that they may be more likely to be obese, have gastrointestinal disorders, higher incidences of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, and are more likely to suffer from depression and other mood disorders. (Getting adequate sleep, eating properly, and getting exercise and recreation are more difficult for people working odd shifts, all contributing to the aforementioned ailments.)
  • Divorce is more prevalent, as couples struggle to cope with the family life imbalances that shift work creates.

What can you do to limit the negative effects of shift work on your employees?

We all agree that our employees are our most valuable asset.  And employees can also be one of our most expensive assets, when you consider recruiting costs, salaries and benefits.  If your business depends on shift work, or benefits from adding shift work, what can you do to mitigate the negative impacts on your employees?

Pay a shift differential:  The Fair Labor Standards Act and Washington law do not require businesses to provide additional compensation for shift work.  However, many companies pay a shift differential, in recognition to their employees of the toll that shift work takes on them.  This is a great starting point, but there’s more that you can do to help keep your employees healthy, happy, and safe.

Keep overtime and shift variances to a minimum:  Shift workers already have difficulties with sleep patterns, and a schedule that is unpredictable for their families and friends to cope with.  Often, it’s hard for shift workers to eat meals at regular times, and to fall asleep on a regular schedule.  This makes it difficult for their families to plan when they can all be together.

Shift workers have to be more diligent to schedule activities with friends, as their friends are usually working when they are off work.  If their schedule is made more difficult by last minute overtime and shift changes, it creates additional stress on the employee and their relationships.

Take additional safety measures:  You can protect your employees’ safety by taking added measures to create an environment that helps everyone stay alert.

  • The lighting needs to be bright enough to compensate for lack of natural daylight.
  • Consider the level of noise in the room.  A quiet work area, or one with low humming noises, will increase the tendency to feel sleepy.
  • Playing peppy music and increasing the intermittent noise level will facilitate an energetic environment.
  • Pay attention, too, to the room temperature.  Having fresh air, or cooler air, will help workers feel refreshed and alert.  The warmer the environment, the less alert they may feel.

Allow shift workers to structure their tasks:  Realize that night shift workers may need to break up monotonous tasks more than those on the day shift.  If they are doing physically demanding or dangerous work, you want them performing it when they are at the most alert point during their shift.  Giving your employees a little more say in how they structure their work, in order for them to keep safe and alert, may help to prevent injuries.  Try to also incorporate some team-oriented tasks, so they have opportunities to work with other people

Give shift workers more flexible breaks:  Night shift workers may have some needs that your day shift employees don’t.  A couple ten minute breaks may not be sufficient for them to re-energize themselves.  They may need time to take a brief walk outside in fresh air, or to do some quick exercises to energize their bodies and wake themselves up.  This may very well be to your company’s advantage — after all, if your employee is able to concentrate fully on their work, their overall productivity will rise.

Keep shift workers in touch with the company:  Remember that your shift workers may not feel as connected to the company as the day shift does.  They may miss out on communications, be left out of staff meetings, and not have contact with key members of management.  If you want them to follow all company policies, they need to feel connected and valued.  Consider having members of management come in periodically during other shifts to talk with employees about what’s going on in the company, and to hear their ideas and concerns.

Maintain shift workers’ morale & camaraderie: A lot of company communication happens in an informal way.  We may no longer have the proverbial water cooler, but the casual chat that occurs during our workdays can be a valuable communication tool.  It also helps to build a spirit of camaraderie, which is important for employee morale and loyalty.  Your shift employees need this as much, or more, than the day shift employees.  You may want to create some special social get together for them.  At the least, be sure that they have the ability to attend company social events and important meetings.

Resources for employers & shift workers:

There are many resources on the internet to help you and your employees create a positive and safe environment for them when they are working on the second or third shifts.  Among them are OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who provide tools for employers and employees alike.

Provide your employees with information about protecting their physical and emotional health, provide your supervisors with the additional skills they need to manage shift workers, and implement feedback and measurement systems that ensure that the shifts are meeting the company’s goals and providing for your workers’ well-being.

The wrap-up:

Santa might have a heck of a big job to do every Christmas Eve, but he only has to work one night a year, and everyone gives him free milk and cookies — which has to to take the sting out of his tough schedule a bit, don’t you think?

If you have night shift workers in your employ, they need more than milk and cookies.  Paying attention to their special needs will not only help them work more efficiently, but will also show them that you appreciate what they sacrifice by working at night.

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