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Shift work

The impact and benefits of shift work to employers and employees

Shift working is increasing in the UK, and more workplaces are identifying productivity advantages of employees working a variety of schedules. 

  1. What is shift work?
  2. The risks of shift work
  3. Improving management and health in shift working
  4. Shift work legislation

2. The risks of shift work

If you don't plan an organised approach to managing shift work, it can have a negative effect both financially and morally on staff. The consequences can include

  • increased sickness absence
  • increased worker fatigue
  • reduced productivity
  • risk of fatigue-related accidents
  • increased costs from absenteeism, accidents, process shutdown
  • increased staff turnover
  • the potential for compensation claims.

Do not underestimate the risks of both physical and mental fatigue on workers. Research by The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) found that individuals actions (performance and alertness) are lower at night than during the day, and lower on 12 hour shifts than eight-hour ones due to the acute effects on mood and performance from workload and job demands.

It is recognised that work accidents are more frequent

  • on night shifts
  • after a succession of shifts
  • when shifts are long
  • when there are inadequate breaks.

Shift workers are at higher risk of falling asleep while driving. This could be during work time or on their journey home after a shift. Fatigue has been identified as a possible contributory factor in up to 20% of road collisions.

Risks to workers

Although all workers can be affected by working shift patterns, some may be more vulnerable than others, these include

  • young and older workers
  • new and expectant mothers
  • workers with pre-existing health conditions
  • workers taking time-dependent medication such as insulin.

Night shift workers may be prone to disturbed and irregular sleep, which can lead to 'sleep debt' and fatigue. Sleep is often lighter, shorter and more easily disturbed because of daytime noise and a natural reluctance to sleep during daylight. This interferes with hormone balance and upsets the body clock. An individual's characteristics will affect the impact of sleep debt, such as

  • gender
  • age
  • personality
  • whether the individual is by habit, a long or short sleeper.

Shift workers are at increased risk of a variety of physical and mental health problems, as well as social issues. The physical aspects can include

  • heart disease
  • gastrointestinal diseases
  • effects on the metabolism may lead to obesity
  • reproductive difficulties.

Workers' mental health can also be affected by

  • mood swings
  • depression
  • slowed reactions
  • loss of social relationships.

Shift workers can also miss out on important family and social events due to their work schedules. This may lead to social isolation. 

Travel to and from work is often overlooked when arranging shift patterns. Individuals can be put at increased physical and economic risk by having to commute at antisocial times. Things to watch out for include

  • increased transport costs due to lack of available public transport and reliance on family or taxis
  • increased commuting time and personal risk while waiting for reduced public transport services
  • shifts and increased commuting time impacting on child care costs and time spent with family.