Attacking Fatigue in the Workplace

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A major workplace issue today is employee fatigue. Alertness in the workplace pays for itself through productivity, safety and quality. It doesn’t happen by accident. Managers can minimize fatigue by attacking it on seven fronts: (1) education, (2) start times, (3) shift length, (4) fixed vs. rotating shifts, (5) consecutive days of work, (6) employee preferences and (7) overtime.

Alertness in the workplace pays for itself through productivity, safety and quality. It doesn’t happen by accident.

The impact of fatigue on employee performance in certain industries is so great that government often feels compelled to pass legislation to control it. Examples are air traffic controllers, trucking, and nuclear power plants. For most jobs, fatigue may not have “life or death” consequences, but managers are still concerned about how it affects workplace safety and performance. This is particularly important for organizations that use multiple shifts, i.e. shiftwork operations.

According to Shiftwork Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in solving shiftwork problems, there are seven fronts managers should attack: (1) education, (2) start times, (3) shift length, (4) fixed vs. rotating shifts, (5) consecutive days of work, (6) employee preferences, and (7) overtime.

Front #1: Education
We don’t drive with our eyes closed because we are aware of the consequences. Yet, we allow ourselves to go about our daily lives with only five or six hours of sleep per night. We readily exchange sleep for other activities thinking there is little harm; we are not aware of the true consequences of our actions. Jim Dillingham, a partner at Shiftwork Solutions, says, “Our research shows that most people think they only need seven hours of sleep per night. The fact is they need eight. The result is a continual build-up of sleep debt as we get less sleep than we need night after night. How would we behave if we knew that after two weeks of mild sleep deprivation, our cognitive abilities would approach those of someone who was legally drunk? Recent studies have suggested as much. Sleep deprivation is a decision. Make sure that your workforce has the information they need to make that decision a good one.”

Front #2: Start Times
A study conducted by Shiftwork Solutions confirms an earlier study by NIOSH which suggests that start times affect sleep quantities. For example, people that start work at 7:00 a.m. sleep about twenty minutes more per night than those that start at 6:00 a.m. Commute times also affect sleep. Time spent in the car driving to and from work is time taken away from other activities. For those “other” activities to take place, sleep is often the first thing sacrificed. Many companies flex their hours to allow commuters to minimize time spent in traffic.

Front #3: Shift Length
Dan Capshaw, another partner at Shiftwork Solutions, explains, “Intuitively, we would think that the longer our workday, the less sleep we get. To a certain extent, this is right. We have found that people working a 12-hour day get about 10 minutes less sleep than people working an 8-hour day. But that is not a complete or accurate picture. People like longer shifts because they get more days off. For an average 40-hour work week, a person working 10-hour shifts will get 52 more days off a year. A person working a 12-hour shift will get 87 more days off per year. Since people sleep more on their days off than they do on workdays, the people on the longer workdays will end up averaging more sleep than those on the 8-hour workdays.”

Front #4: Consecutive Days of Work
The more days in a row you work, the farther you fall behind in your sleep. When you short yourself sleep, you create a sleep debt. This debt is cumulative, and more importantly, it is very subtle. People will not realize they are losing cognitive ability every day. With each passing night, they come to work less safe and less productive. Shortening the number of days people work in a row will give them time off to catch up on their sleep and pay off some of that sleep debt. While the number of days needed to fully recover is uncertain, most researchers believe they need at least two days off in a row to have a recuperative impact.

Front #5: Rotating Shifts vs. Fixed Shifts
From an alertness point of view, fixed shifts are superior to rotating shifts. There is a significant amount of research indicating higher health risks and lower overall alertness on rotating shifts.

Front #6: Employee Preferences
People judge their work schedule not by when they have to come to work, but by when they can stay home. In short, they focus on their time off. What people really want is a schedule that minimizes the conflicts between when they want to be off work and when they can be off work. Mr. Dillingham points out, “There is rarely a perfect fit and you will never find a workforce where 100% of the people want the same thing. However, minimizing overall schedule conflicts should be your goal. Why? When there is a conflict, people will find a way to do what they want to do, often at the expense of sleep. Less conflict equals better sleep patterns which results in higher alertness and better performance. There is no pattern that is ‘best’ for every employee demographic. If you want to know what your workforce wants – ask them.”

Front #7: Overtime
Overtime disrupts people’s lives. They have plans that get changed at the last minute. Forfeiting sleep is one of the ways they will try to recover time off lost to overtime. How much overtime is too much is a difficult question to answer. Most companies feel that an annual average between 5% and 15% is about right. However, there are a lot of considerations other than alertness that go into finding the perfect amount for any operation.

Alertness in the workplace pays for itself through productivity, safety and quality. It doesn’t happen by accident. If you want to make sure your employees are as alert as possible, you need to (1) create an operational structure which promotes alertness, and (2) give the workforce the tools they need to make good decisions.

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Bruce Oliver
Shiftwork Solutions LLC
(415) 472-3688
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