Health and employee wellbeing risks are growing with the rise in overnight shift workers
There are over 3.2 million shift workers in the UK, which is a rise of about 9% over the last five years according to figures from the TUC. As the proportion of the UK’s workforce toiling through the night increases, so does the swell of employee wellbeing issues which come with working when most of us are fast asleep.
Security, logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, cleaning and hospitality all rely on employees willing to burn the midnight oil to keep the country’s cogs turning. Unfortunately for these employees, this comes at a significant increase in work-related risks.
These risk factors include:
More dangerous commuting
Driving in general is a surprisingly dangerous aspect of daily life; every year over a thousand people are killed by cars, and over a hundred thousand more are injured. Long overnight shifts make it riskier for employees to operate their vehicle, especially if the end of their shift coincides with rush hour.
The circadian rhythm and the human sleep pattern is delicate, and workers who regularly work overnight find it difficult to reconcile their sleep patterns with a changeable work schedule, creating punishing sleep deficits.
Dips in alertness
Prolonged fatigue makes it more difficult for employees to be fully switched on at work, creating a hazardous situation in all work environments and affecting productivity.
Diet and exercise suffer
Between work, family life and fatigue, it’s harder to find time to fit regular exercise into a schedule. Working irregular hours also limits food options, favouring poor choices. This affects overall health and employee wellness.
Working unsociable hours can lead to social isolation; there’s a smaller pool of employees from which to draw a peer group at work, and their friends outside their work are more likely to operate daytime hours. Additionally, shift work strains domestic relationships, especially for households with two working parents.
Reliance on sedatives or stimulants
To combat the disruptions to natural sleep cycles it’s common for employees to resort to using energy supplements to stay awake during shifts or sleep medication at night to cope. Long term this dependence can have serious consequences for mental and physical health.
Unchecked and unmanaged, these problems are a recipe for injury, poor mental health, low job satisfaction, underperformance and ultimately higher employee turnover.
Basic steps to address this problem:
Manage workloads appropriately
Take greater care to make sure employees aren’t overburdened with work during night shifts; working less hospitable hours only compounds workload stress, eventually leading to health complications and extreme fatigue.
Supply good food
In the absence of better food options, provide them. Access to healthier food options will improve mood, aid in good health and help stave off crashes in alertness from indulging in sugary snacks.
Monitor shift durations
Seek to limit the amount of overlong shifts, or the amount of consecutive long shifts, to minimise the chances of fatigue compounding to dangerous levels.
Address the rotation of shifts
Aim to rotate employees from morning, to afternoon, and on to night shifts, making it easier to adjust a sleep cycle.
Make sure breaks are taken
Even though some employees are likely to work through statutory breaks, this multiplies the risk of fatigue, injury and stress.
Portion out rest to give staff time to recover
Resetting a sleep schedule takes at least a full day, if not more. For employees to recover from their sleep disruption in time for a change in schedule, they’ll require adequate time.
Employee assistance programmes or appointed representative could be very helpful in making sure employees at risk of social isolation or domestic struggles have a sympathetic, helpful place to turn.
All of this should, of course, be undertaken alongside your regular health and safety and occupational health assessments. Investing in employee wellbeing now makes more sense than being trapped in a cycle of recruiting, training and burning out your staff.