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Better scheduling can improve employee retention

Business, Safety | June 1, 2023 | By: Roger R. Rosa & Michael J. Colligan

Editor’s note: When discussing employee retention problems, one of the most commonly cited causes are the hours this industry requires—early mornings, late nights, weekends and holidays.

As you’ll read below, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refers to this type of schedule as “shiftwork” and cautions that it can negatively affect workers’ safety and even their health, if proper precautions aren’t taken, increasing the likelihood that they will seek employment elsewhere. So as we head into the busy season for events, take a moment to look at your scheduling policies and see if perhaps there are ways to make the hours a little more sustainable for your team. 

Work-rest ratios 

The more a person works, the less time he or she will have for rest. People who work an 8-hour shift will have 16 hours left in a day to do everything else, and to get some rest. People who work a 12-hour shift have only 12 hours to do everything else and to rest. In a situation like this, the extra work hours mean more tiredness and less time for rest. Many times, their home responsibilities, such as taking care of children, cannot change from day to day. If they are working overtime or a 12-hour shift, they still must take care of home duties, and since these duties take the same amount of time every day, workers may sacrifice rest and sleep after a long workday. 

When looking at work versus rest, consider how many breaks are taken during the shift and the length of breaks. Depending on the type of work and length of the day, several short breaks might be better than a few long breaks, particularly for jobs requiring heavy physical labor. 

How tired a worker is also depends partly on how many days in a row he or she works. Fatigue builds up over several workdays, as well as over a single workday. This happens especially when a person gets less sleep between workdays than on rest days. As we mentioned earlier, a worker might not get enough sleep between long workdays because of home responsibilities. So, if a person works several days in a row, for example, six or seven, a good deal of sleep might be lost. Then the worker feels exceptionally tired during the last one or two shifts.

Interference with social and family life 

Most social and family events happen during the evening or on weekends. Because shiftworkers are on the job in the evening or on weekends, or because they sleep during the day, they often miss out on social or family activities. When shiftworkers are asked about problems with their work schedule, they usually say that the number one problem is missing family and friends. 

Most shiftworkers agree that sleep also is a problem, but sometimes they would rather lose a little sleep just to see other people, especially their spouse or children. 

Long-term health effects 

In the long run, it is possible for a demanding work schedule to negatively affect a person’s health. Some research has suggested that shiftworkers have more upset stomachs, constipation, and stomach ulcers than day workers. Heart problems also have been noted more often among shiftworkers than day workers. If possible, workers will change jobs if they think the work is making them ill. 

A stressful schedule can combine with other factors to hurt a person’s health. If a person has other major stresses in life, such as a bad marriage or a loved one with a chronic illness, a demanding work schedule certainly won’t help the situation. If a worker has poor health habits, such as using too much alcohol or tobacco, it will be more difficult to change those habits under the stress of the work schedule. 

Improving shiftwork schedules

A well-designed work schedule can improve health and safety, worker satisfaction and productivity. Therefore, a good work schedule is an advantage for both the organization and the worker. Shown below are some possibilities that the organization could consider to improve a shiftwork schedule. It is recommended that any work schedule change should first be temporary and evaluated carefully. The benefits of the change must outweigh the possible negative aspects.

Plan some free weekends: If a seven-days-per-week schedule is required, allow one or two full weekends off each month. Loss of contact with friends and family is a major problem for shiftworkers, and weekends are the best time to meet family and friends who are on a day schedule. 

Avoid several days of work followed by four- to seven-day “mini-vacations”: Working several days in a row followed by several days off can be very fatiguing. For example, some schedules require 10 to 14 days of work followed by five to seven days off. Frequent “mini-vacations” are well liked by some workers, especially younger ones. However, older workers find it difficult to sufficiently recover during the mini-vacations before they return to another long spell of work. 

Consider different lengths for shifts: Try adjusting shift length to the workload. Heavy physical or mental work or monotonous boring work is especially difficult at night. Maybe night shifts could be shorter. If possible, move heavy work to shorter shifts and lighter work to longer shifts.

Examine start-end times: Flexible start-end times, or “flextime,” can be useful for those with childcare needs or a long commute time. Consider moving shift start-end times away from rush hour. Workers should know their schedule well ahead of time, so they can plan their rest, childcare and contact with family and friends. 

Examine rest breaks: Sometimes the standard lunch and coffee break are not enough to recover from fatigue. In jobs requiring repetitive physical work, brief rest breaks each hour seem to be best for recovery from muscle fatigue.

Access to health care and counselling: Often, going to one’s health clinic
or to personal or marriage counselling is not possible in the evening or at night. Expanded access to these services will help improve shiftworkers’ physical and mental health and boost morale. 

Social programs: Making a little extra effort at organizing get-togethers, hobby clubs, or sports and game activities can lessen the feeling of isolation workers may have. There is no special reason for these activities to take place only in the day or evening. For example, nighttime or early morning bowling leagues are available in some places. 

This article is excerpted from a longer piece published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention titled “Plain Language about Shiftwork.” For more information or to read the complete article, visit 

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