A shift in thinking

by Rachel Lehen - Fatigue Management Solutions
Monday , 3 August 2020 - 5 minute read
A man wipes his face while working at a machine

Most companies say their staff are their most important asset, but how do you ensure you actually follow through on that promise? We take a look at the impact variable working hours can have on your shift workers, and offer up some tips on how to help keep everyone happy and healthy.

How to look after your shift workers

We’ve all seen them by now, those Company Value Statements that have been carefully crafted and promoted to tell customers that ‘their people are their biggest asset’; that they’ll do anything necessary to ‘get everyone home safely every day’, or the old favourite: ‘Health & Safety is our number 1 priority’. After all, people do business with people that care, right?

That’s as maybe, but how many companies operating 24/7 are really putting their people’s health & wellbeing first? And more to the point, how is that even possible given the current economic climate?

COVID-19 will almost certainly have impacted upon the way you undertake your business operations. It may be that you now have more people working from home; that you’ve had to design new work schedules as a result of having fewer personnel due to restructuring; or perhaps you’ve had to think about moving to a 24/7 operation to accommodate a growth in business (e.g. courier & postal delivery services / online sellers). Whatever your situation - when it comes to shift working schedules in particular - keeping your workers’ health & wellbeing a top priority is paramount in order to mitigate human errors and accidents, increased absenteeism and turnover, and potentially lower productivity and reduced performance.

The shift paradigm

Shift workers face significantly greater challenges than their day-working counterparts. Family and social life can suffer, especially for those who work in the evening, at night or on the weekend. Health can also be adversely affected if not properly managed. Shiftwork has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. In addition, both sleep quantity and quality are often lower for those working at night, or on shifts starting early in the morning.1 The result? In a word, fatigue.

Human fatigue is an impairment of mental and physical function manifested by a cluster of debilitating symptoms, usually including excessive sleepiness, reduced physical and mental performance, depressed mood and loss of motivation. A person experiencing fatigue may be more likely to make mistakes and take risks, and may be less able to respond to unusual or emergency events.

Fatigue, as related to shift work, is fundamentally a physiological problem, not a behavioural one. Certainly, a person’s behaviour can induce or compound fatigue, but shift worker fatigue is caused primarily by four operational drive factors:

1. Circadian (Body Clock)

Our body clocks are adversely affected when we find ourselves:

a. Working when you would normally be asleep

b. Sleeping when you would normally be awake

c. Frequently having to change your sleep/wake cycles

d. Misalignment of daily alertness cycles with work requirements

2. Sleep

Shift work can seriously impact upon our:

a. Ability to get normal hours of sleep

b. Ability to get normal quality of sleep

c. Ability to set a consistent bedtime routine

d. Having an adequate sleeping environment

3. Work and Environment

The nature of our work can also be a factor, including:

a. Having early shift start times

b. Having fast rotating schedules and/or long, irregular hours (i.e. overtime that is a result of inadequate resourcing for the workload)

c. Having inadequate rest/recovery time between shifts and/or work blocks

d. Having a boring/monotonous work environment

e. Having a boring/monotonous job

4. Health

Ultimately, it’s our health that suffers. Shift work can create or compound:

a. Medical sleep disorder problems (e.g. obstructive sleep apnea)

b. Underlying health issues (e.g. hypertension, diabetes, epilepsy, etc)

c. Unhealthy eating habits or times (i.e. increasing cardiac risk factors, digestive disorders and more)

d. Use/abuse of coping substances (e.g. caffeine, sleeping pills, alcohol, nicotine etc)

e. General lifestyle issues (i.e inability to achieve adequate sleep due to studying, partying, secondary employment, gaming etc)

So if you have shift working staff returning to work, or you have to re-design your work schedule, it’s probably best to consider the above factors first. That said, the optimal solution for any particular business may differ, determined not only by the business goals and operational needs of that site or facility, but also by the family/social preferences and lifestyle needs of the employees who work there - as well as by the biological factors impacting employee health, safety, and performance.

With this in mind, here are some ideas to help support your shift workers as you get back to business:

Training & resources

Your staff must always come first, so think about setting out an Engagement Plan, and consider involving families with fatigue management training and education sessions. You could also make workers’ lives easier by connecting them with food preparation companies, or get them set up with online grocery shopping to help them to prepare healthy food to bring to work.

Health Monitoring

First things first, water - ensure you’ve provided adequate hydration for all your workers, particularly those who work off site. Annual health monitoring is also a good idea to keep track of any illness or disease (work or non-work related) and ensure everyone is fir for their role. Periodic sleep disorder screening can also be vital, especially for those in safety critical roles such as driving. You could also create a ‘sleep improvement kit’ for each and every member of staff to help them maximise rest opportunities – for example, black out curtains or eye masks (especially if they are night shift workers), ear plugs, fans, sleep diaries, sleep planners, etc. Roster & scheduling Try to manage the risk of fatigue among your staff. So how can you do this exactly? Firstly, by monitoring overtime – who’s doing it, and how often. Secondly by ensuring you have adequate staff resource for the workload. Thirdly by maintaining consistent start & finish times as much as possible, and giving workers adequate notice of their shifts or variations to their schedules. And lastly by ensuring people stay refreshed by taking their annual leave throughout the year rather than letting it accumulate.

Commute & driver fatigue

Work is one thing, but getting to and from work to perform your role is another. Try to encourage journey planning that factors in an employee’s commute. For example, you could organize alternative transport (taxi or bus) for people coming off night shift, or those who have worked an extended shift or overtime. Specifics are normally included in a Company Fatigue Policy but worked out on an individual employee basis depending on circumstance. You could also promote napping at work, giving staff a ‘safe place’ for rest and recuperation when on a break.

Listen to feedback

It’s also vitally important for workers to feel part of the process. So make sure you have a feedback system in place so that all workers’ concerns can be heard and acknowledged. And of course, ensure your company takes part in industry fatigue forums to establish a ‘best practice’ operation.

Above all, remember your staff and shift workers really are your greatest asset – and looking after them makes great business sense.

With a background in natural health, Rachel has been specialising in the area of occupational fatigue management for the last 11 years, including regularly leading Fatigue Management Masterclasses, as well as presenting at a number of industry conferences to speak on the subject of fatigue management. Rachel facilitated NZ’s first research study on the prevalence of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in a Commercial Driver population, which was co-funded by ACC and the Log Transport Safety Council (LTSC). Rachel remains very involved with the LTSC’s efforts to identify & support high risk OSA drivers, and currently sits on the Sleep Apnea Association of NZ (SAANZ) committee. https://www.frms.co.nz/


  1. Moreno, C.R.C et al. (2019) Working Time Society consensus statements: Evidence-based effects of shift work on physical and mental health. Ind Health. 2019 Mar; 57(2): 139–157.

Related Articles