It’s time to treat shift workers responsibly

+ Employers should develop a recognised framework of best practice for shift workers who are a fundamental part of their workforce.

In our always-on, 24/7 world, shift working has become ever more common. Given the growing embrace of 24-hour services I believe it is vital that businesses invest in their employees’ psychological wellbeing, on both ethical and commercial grounds. Employers should develop a recognised framework of best practice for this fundamental part of their workforce.

In today’s economy an increasing number of people are having to override their natural sleep patterns and work shifts, meeting round the clock demands from consumers, patients, travellers and others. We all know someone who has to work shifts, and many of us have personally endured shift working. And it continues to be vital to the operation of the transport sector, the emergency services, healthcare, and the construction and energy industries. 

Shift work’s effect on wellbeing and work performance is chiefly expressed through its effects on workers’ circadian rhythms, the natural 24-hour long pattern of physical, mental and behavioural changes affected by sleep.

In my Masters research on the wellbeing of fire-fighters working shifts, sleep quality significantly predicted both burnout and engagement when usual sleep patterns were upset by shift working. As you might expect, I also found that sleep quality, stress and engagement all affect workers’ performance, during both day and night shifts.

Clearly it’s time for the public, policy makers, and business leaders to engage with these effects and practices. Employing underperforming shift workers makes no sense to a commercial business, given that as a 2014 World Green Building Council report makes clear, ‘90% of a typical businesses’ operating costs are comprised of salaries and staff benefits’. 

On the ethical side of the equation bodies such as The World Health Organization clearly state that employers have a moral, legal and business requirement to ensure a healthy workplace. Yet, this message is still not actively recognised and acted upon consistently across businesses. The majority of employers have been found to consider health and wellbeing to be a ‘private concern of employees’.

In public transport across the world it’s clear that an expectation of round-the-clock service is becoming the norm. The Copenhagen Metro has had 24/7 driverless operation since 2002. Berlin’s U-bahn replaces its trains with buses for overnight service, and Tokyo introduced night buses in 2013 and is considering 24-hour metro services. In London a limited all-night Tube service is being rolled out in summer 2016, but only after considerable resistance from workers, partly relating to fears over a big increase in night working.

Despite the volume of research undertaken globally into the dangers of shift working, there are still very few businesses championing the need to design shift patterns. Shift patterns should be designed to include:

sufficient support in place to aid staff’s adaptation to shift working and always with their people’s wellbeing in mind; 

training to aid workers in adapting their circadian rhythms to working shifts; 

education for managers to ensure that they are aware of the warning signs associated with shift worker wellbeing; 

a review of job roles to ensure that workers’ roles are suitably aligned with their skills and time available.

It’s time to tackle this issue. If you have encountered any examples of employers with forward-thinking practices on this issue, do please share them in the comments below.