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.
Better work schedules can be designed 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
There should be a limit on the number of consecutive shifts worked. For days (including morning and afternoon shifts), a good practice is no more than 5 or 6 shifts, depending on the length of each shift. For nights, the limit should be lower.
As much time off as possible should be given after night shifts to maximise recovery sleep. At the end of a run of shifts, the aim should be at least two whole days off.
Manage shift rotations
If rotating shifts are required, they should cycle later in a ‘forward’ 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.
Driving to and from work should be considered as part of the working day, and can present the most dangerous phase...
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.
Analysis of current rostering software
An analysis of your current rostering software is recommended, particularly in regards to its ability to measure potential fatigue problems and help improve overall fatigue management. For example, Opturion will identify where fatigue is most likely and provide guidance for management and mitigation in order to design rosters that have less fatigue and are more closely aligned with the business requirements.
New, state-of-the-art rostering software
The subject of fatigue is complex. It is not an exact science, and there are no hard-and-fast rules. For the non-expert, it can be bewildering. Thankfully, there are new tools available to help build good rosters.
State-of-the-art rostering software, such as that designed by the Alertness CRC and Opturion, takes into account the biological principles underpinning alertness and sleep, and can be a highly beneficial consideration for any employer looking to optimise work schedules. Opturion’s AlertSafe® rostering solutions, for example, include a calculation of Fatigue Risk Index and Risk Index1 on a shift-by-shift basis. They also consider recommendations on the maximum shift duration, minimum time off between shifts, the maximum number of consecutive day or night shifts, and direction of shift rotation, among others.
The CRC-Opturion-developed rostering system is unique in its ability to automatically create rosters that are compliant with clinical and financial requirements (such as providing adequate coverage, continuity, workplace safety and employee agreements) while, at the same time, minimising costs. 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, additional leave and individual preferences. It is designed to enable new ‘minimal change’ rosters to be created quickly in the event of an unplanned absence or other disruptions – each working day and lines of work can be assessed to identify any problems and prompt management or mitigation strategies. 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.
AlertSafe® rostering has been applied within several applications across health, transport, and industry 2,3.
Adopting new rostering software
Adopting new rostering software can be a very straightforward process. For example, Opturion has a well-developed model and program for the adoption of the AlertSafe® cloud-based rostering system, enabling potential users to identify the need and expected benefits, design better rosters, and bring them into operation. This consists of the roster builder, roster manager and worker application. Once installed, AlertSafe® continuous improvements are made available to all users, driven by the needs of others and ongoing research. For more information regarding rostering research capabilities and opportunities, you can contact the Australian Sleep and Alertness Consortium (ASAC).
1 Folkard, S., Robertson, K. A., & Spencer, M. B. (2007). A Fatigue/Risk Index to assess work schedules. Somnologie-Schlafforschung und Schlafmedizin, 11(3), 177-185.
Workplace Scheduling Solutions
Need some help?
As an employer, there are other elements to consider when designing schedules, such as workload, staff level, staff experience mix, equipment logistics, and so on. 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 your 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.
In conjunction with the CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity, Opturion has developed AlertSafe® rostering systems based on the above principals above, and including a calculation of Fatigue Risk Index and Risk Index. More information can be found here. These systems can also be used as part of research project activities when investigating enhancements or impacts of scheduling changes within an organisation. You can contact the Australian Sleep and Alertness Consortium (ASAC) if you wish to further discuss scheduling-related research opportunities.