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Shift Work Disorder in the Workplace

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Danielle Pacheco

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Dr. Abhinav Singh

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Shift work refers to any work schedule that falls outside the hours of 7am and 6pm. The term encompasses evening, night, and early morning hours, as well as fixed or rotating shifts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 16% of full-time salary and wage employees in the U.S. work non-daytime shifts.

Although the shift work schedule is common – and, in some cases, downright necessary – for certain occupations, irregular hours can take a toll on an employee’s sleep, mood, and overall health. Shift workers who are sleep deprived are also more prone to errors and accidents at the workplace.

If you manage employees who work irregular schedules, there are measures you can take to promote healthy sleep habits among your staff and ensure a safer, more productive workplace environment. You should also familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of shift work disorder, a condition that can carry severe implications.

Tips for Assigning Night and Early Morning Shifts

Lack of proper sleep can affect an employee’s ability to concentrate, pay attention, stay on task, and engage with co-workers. When assigning night shifts, here are a few things to keep in mind with regard to worker safety and productivity:

  • Carefully consider start times: Every employer has different needs, but start times between the hours of 5am and 6am are discouraged for a few reasons. For one, early morning shifts are associated with the greatest amounts of worker fatigue. These shifts can also be problematic for employees who use public transportation.
  • Keep an eye on new employees: While any employee is susceptible to sleep problems from working irregular hours, those who are new to shift work are probably more likely to commit errors or be involved in an accident. The same is true of employees working shifts that extend beyond their normal hours. Routine follow-ups with these workers can help you make sure they are adapting to the shift and are fit for work.
  • Maintain a well-lit work environment: Since circadian rhythms are mostly based on exposure to light, a bright workplace can help employees adjust to irregular hours. Studies have shown that exposure to light intensities ranging from 1,200 to 10,000 lux for three to six hours during a shift can accelerate the adjustment process. Alternatively, intermittent light exposure for 20 minutes each hour has also proven effective.
  • Encourage productive breaks: For breaks lasting 15 to 20 minutes, employees can get a much-needed energy boost by squeezing in a quick workout in the office gym or running a few laps around the property. They could also opt for a nap. While a break might seem insufficient for sleep, studies have actually shown 10 to 20 minutes is the ideal nap time. Longer naps can lead to deep sleep, making them harder to wake up and more likely to feel groggy as they get back to work. Keep in mind: there is no federal law that requires employers to provide breaks during shifts, but even a brief period of rest can greatly benefit your staff.
  • Establish a dedicated napping area: Many offices have nap rooms specifically designated for employees to get some shuteye while on breaks. If your workplace does not have a dedicated nap area, you may be able to set one up in a conference room, break room, or spare office. You can also encourage employees to use this area for catching a quick nap before driving home, rather than sleeping in their car.
  • Discuss carpooling options: Drowsy driving is a major hazard for shift workers. According to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an accident due to drowsy driving is most likely to occur between midnight and 6am or in the late afternoon. Furthermore, most of these accidents involve single drivers. Employees sharing rides to work, rather than driving alone, could potentially reduce the risk of an accident on the road.

Tips for Assigning Rotating Shifts

The tips listed above mostly apply to evening, night, and early morning shift workers with fixed schedules. If your employees rotate shifts within a given week or month, then they have unique sleep considerations you should take into account.

Employers today use a wide range of rotating work schedules. Common examples include:

  • Continental: This schedule requires employees to change between eight-hour day, swing, and night shifts over the course of seven consecutive work days. After each seven-day block, they’ll usually receive two or three days off. Three teams of employees are needed to cover the three shifts of each day.
  • Panama: This schedule follows a 14-day cycle with employees working 12-hour shifts each day. This schedule is also known as a 2-2-3 because employees will work two or three consecutive days interspersed with two or three consecutive days off. Employees who follow the Panama schedule typically work the same hours each shift, but their work days and days off will depend on the week.
  • Dupont: The Dupont schedule follows a four-week cycle. Employees switch between day and night shifts, often within the same week, and will work for three or four consecutive days at a time. Their workdays are interspersed with one to three consecutive days off. Additionally, the employee receives one block of seven days off during the four-week period.
  • Southern Swing: Under this schedule, employees work eight-hour shifts for seven days in a row. All seven of these shifts will follow the same day, swing, or night shift hours. After two or three days off, the employee will work another seven consecutive days, this time following a shift.

Regardless of which type of rotating schedule your employees follow, here are a few things to take into account when assigning rotating shifts:

  • Some schedules are better for circadian rhythms: The body has an easier time adjusting to these shifts if they rotate ahead, rather than backward. For example, an employee following a Dupont schedule will likely be more satisfied with a schedule that progresses from day to swing to night shifts, rather than a reverse schedule or one that follows a random pattern.
  • Everyone acclimates differently: Rotating shifts too frequently can be problematic because the body often needs more time to adjust to any given schedule. Although many employees rotate shifts every five to seven days, this schedule does not give employees enough time to acclimate before they change their hours. A rotation period of two weeks to one month may produce more satisfaction from your employees. Alternatively, it’s been argued that rotating shifts every two to three days is also beneficial because the rapid readjustment causes less disruption to the employee’s circadian cycle.
  • Provide adequate days off: The general rule-of-thumb is that employees need at least 24 hours of rest for every block of night shifts. Longer blocks of consecutive shifts may demand more time off.
  • Longer hours can be problematic: Some employees may be incentivized to work longer hours on rotating shifts if this means more days off. However, you should take factors like fatigue and ergonomic hazards into account when planning shifts that exceed the eight-hour mark.
  • Always communicate with employees: If you aren’t sure which schedule is best for your workers, schedule time to chat with them about their needs and preferences. You should strive to provide schedules as far in advance as possible for employees who rotate between days on and off or different shifts throughout the day. This allows them to schedule activities and appointments.

    Additional Ways To Help Employees With Shift Work

    In order to best ensure your staff is well-rested and ready to work, you may want to consider sleep hygiene training. Sleep hygiene refers to practices and habits that promote healthy, high-quality sleep. Since adequate sleep can be elusive for shift workers, following sleep hygiene guidelines on and off the clock can greatly improve their safety, performance, and workplace satisfaction.

    Important aspects of sleep hygiene that apply to shift workers include:

    • Consistent sleep schedule: You should plan to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on the weekends or when you’re traveling. This clearly presents challenges with people who sleep during the day and work at night, but studies have found this is the best method for adapting to shift work.
    • Relaxing bedroom environment: The ideal bedroom is quiet and dark in order to promote relaxation. Room temperature is also important. Many experts agree 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 19.4 degrees Celsius) (11) is the best bedroom temperature range for sleep. Earplugs or a white noise machine can help block outside noises, while an eye mask or blackout curtains can prevent sunlight from disrupting your sleep.
    • Disruption-free sleep: Getting an adequate amount of sleep during the day can be difficult if you share your residence with a partner or roommate, children, or pets. Establish strict guidelines about not disturbing you or waking you up to ensure you get enough rest.
    • Limited caffeine intake: A moderate amount of caffeine during the first few hours of your shift can help you feel refreshed as you start work. Some shift workers also employ the “coffee nap” strategy, which involves drinking a cup of coffee and then taking a nap lasting 15 to 20 minutes. This allows them to wake up as the caffeine begins to take effect. However, you should refrain from consuming caffeinated foods and beverages three to four hours before your planned bedtime.
    • No alcohol before bed: Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant than can induce feelings of tiredness, making it easier to fall asleep. That said, alcohol can also disrupt sleep during the night as your body’s liver enzymes break it down. This is why drinking before bed is normally discouraged.
    • Take melatonin with caution: Melatonin supplements are available over the counter. They can help people with shift work disorder and other sleep conditions related to circadian rhythm, but you should always consult with a doctor before trying melatonin or other sleep aids. If not taken properly, melatonin can adversely impact your sleep-wake rhythm.

    Employees who receive sleep hygiene training frequently report positive outcomes, such as longer sleep duration, better sleep quality, and less on-the-job fatigue.

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