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Mitigating the impact of night shifts through roster design

Given the changing patterns of demand for goods and services across all sectors, organisations are increasingly faced with the challenge of introducing new ways of working or amending the current hours or shift patterns worked by employers. 

3.5 million People in the UK work shifts and many work through the night. 

Sarah Montague presented a programme on Radio 4 looking at just how bad night shifts are for your health. You can listen to the programme here:

Scientists have warned that society has become supremely arrogant in ignoring the importance of sleep and the body clock. Fifty years ago adults had an average of eight hours sleep per night whereas now the average is a mere 6.5.

Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University insists that our biological make-up means we struggle to cope with a 24/7 lifestyle. 

Foster told Radio 4 that while the assumption has always been that you adapt to the night shift “the really extraordinary finding across a whole range of different studies is that you don’t adapt”.

In light of this numerous studies link long term night working with breast cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

One of the most common debates when considering the most appropriate and effective work pattern is whether to use a rotating or fixed shift system. 

Rotational shift systems mean that employees will change their hours of work across several work patterns/work blocks on a regular/pre-determined basis. 

When designing a rotational shift system it is recommended that employees rotate shifts every 2-3 days or every 3-4 weeks, otherwise adopt forward rotating patterns.

Under a fixed shift system, employees are scheduled to work the same hours every week. This inevitably means that a group of employees will be scheduled onto a permanent night shift.

There is a growing school of thought that if the demand on your organisation dictates that night shift working is required then that workload should be shared between all relevant employees. HSE make the following recommendations:

  • Night shifts to be rotated between workers and recommend only a few night shifts worked consecutively (so that the internal body clock does not adapt, and sleep loss can be quickly recovered, reducing the risk of fatigue and health risks)
  • Workers are not scheduled onto permanent night shifts

Good practice when designing shift patterns:

Regardless of whether an organisation decides to utilise fixed or rotating shifts, it is important that a number of considerations are made to mitigate the health risks of shift work.

Suggested best practice includes:

  • Use tools such as the HSE Fatigue Risk Indicator tool to help compare different shift patterns and their associated risk and fatigue levels
  • Limit shifts to 12 hours including overtime, or to 8 hours if work is demanding, monotonous, dangerous or safety critical
  • Limit consecutive work days to between five and seven days
  • Restrict long shifts, night shifts and early morning shifts to two to three consecutive shifts

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