What can I do as an employer?
Workplace sleepiness is a known risk factor for accidents and injuries, at any time of day but particularly during the night shift. On-the-job sleepiness also reduces productivity.
We can design better work schedules to help people get more sleep at home, which in turn improves the alertness, safety and productivity of your workforce, improving your bottom line.
So what should be considered when scheduling work hours?
Minimise shift duration
Shorter shifts (e.g., 8 hours) are generally safer than longer shifts (e.g., 12 hours). Shifts over 12 hours should rarely be scheduled. Consider unequal shift duration and make night shifts as short as possible, given the greater risk of sleepiness during the night.
Reduce consecutive shifts
Minimise the number of consecutive days worked, particularly for the night shift workers where no more than 2-3 nights in a row are recommended. For day shifts, at least one full day off per week is recommend, limiting work days to 6 in a row.
As much time off as possible should be given after night shifts to maximise recovery sleep.
Manage shift rotations
If rotating shifts are required, they should cycle later in a ‘delay’ direction, i.e. from morning, to evening to night shifts, and not the other way around. Try and avoid ‘quick returns’ (e.g., evening to morning shift transitions), which limit the amount of sleep that can be obtained between shifts.
Flexitime and telecommuting
Consider these options where possible to help workers personalise their work and sleep, and reduce commute time and frequency. Re-examine start times and question whether they are simply set by tradition and could be changed and improved.
Consider complete wake time
Be realistic and consider time to get ready and commuting durations when calculating work time and duration; it is wake time, not work time, which determines sleepiness. For example, taking 45 minutes to wake up, shower, dress and eat plus arriving 15 minutes early to prepare, plus a 2-hour commute each way, will add 5 hours of wake time by the end of the drive home. When added to a 12-hour shift, this total time awake presents a high risk of a drowsy driving crash on the way home.
...it is wake time, not work time, which determines sleepiness.
Some of these solutions apply only to night shift workers, but it is still important to review work hours for day workers. Long daytime work hours can, for example, lead to a dangerous commute on the drive to and from work. Workers who start early in the morning often wake up in the middle of their ‘circadian’ night, have high levels of sleep inertia, and have often not gone to bed early enough to get enough sleep. These ‘early risers’ can therefore be driving to work in a sleepy state. A later work start time will help to increase sleep duration and reduce morning sleepiness, with the added benefit of reducing commute times and road traffic at peak hour!
That being said, night shift schedules do require particular attention, given the increased dangers of working at night. It takes about an hour per day to shift the circadian clock; for example, moving from a day shift starting at 7am to a night shift starting at 7pm would take 12 days to adjust. Other shift times, days off, and family and social commitments make it even harder to adapt. We therefore need to take extra steps to minimise the risks, including a more proactive approach to monitoring and evaluating sleepiness and performance, including fail safes and other redundancies to reduce the chance of mistakes having an impact.
The Alertness CRC and scheduling
The Alertness CRC has partnered with Opturion Pty Ltd to combine state-of-the-art rostering software with the biological principles underpinning alertness and sleep, summarised in the Alertness CRC’S Best Practice Recommendations. These guidelines include recommendations on the maximum shift duration, minimum time off between shifts, maximum number of consecutive day or night shifts, and direction of shift rotation, among others.
The CRC developed rostering system is unique in its ability to create rosters that are compliant with clinical and financial requirements (such as providing adequate coverage, continuity, workplace safety and employee agreements) whilst, at the same time, minimising costs. The incorporation of the novel ‘alert-safe’ algorithms provide a further level of differentiation, innovation and benefit. The system also deals with other scheduling considerations including holidays, other leave and individual preferences, and is designed to enable new ‘minimal change’ rosters to be created quickly in the event of unplanned absence or other disruptions. Data are uploaded from HR systems and downloaded to time and attendance systems using simple text file transfer. This technology is built for the Cloud and designed to integrate with existing customer systems and power channel partners who wish to add value to their products and solutions.
Workplace Scheduling Solutions
Need some help?
As an employer, the above factors are not the only elements to consider when designing schedules. You should also consider workload, staff level, staff experience mix, equipment logistics etc. and these can still be organised with sleep and circadian principles in mind.
For large workforces or complex problems, professional assistance is recommended to ensure that the schedule is optimised for all the relevant factors, including the shift schedule pattern. Many of these factors can be quantified and therefore allow software-based solutions that can quickly work through millions of different options to come up with best schedule.
You can partner with the Alertness CRC to evaluate and change your schedules and measure the impact of deploying ‘Alert-Safe’ technology on safety and productivity. Together, we can optimise schedules to maximise safety and productivity while meeting your operational needs.