When to start thinking about redesigning your shift schedule
24/7 managers are often well-aware that a poorly designed schedule can cause serious problems for their workers — low morale, absenteeism, increased accidents, family stress, and impaired health, to name just a few. However, many companies stick with their current schedules out of inertia. The attitude of the day is often “We’ve always done it this way, so why should we change?”
There are well over 300 different schedules that round-the-clock operations have used with varying degrees of success, out of the thousands of mathematical schedule possibilities. The hundreds of feasible schedules include those that use 8-hour, 12-hour and combined 8- and 12-hour shifts. It’s a good idea to periodically put some thought into how well your scheduling system serves your company, even if things seem to be going fine at the moment.
Common “Problematic” Schedules
Two fairly common shift scheduling practices that most shiftwork experts now view as antiquated are:
- 8-hour shifts that rotate counterclockwise
- Shifts in which three crews working 8-hour shifts cover a seven-day operation by working a lot of overtime or are supplemented by a “weekend warrior” crew
The problem with the counter-clockwise rotation — working nights, then evenings, then days — is that it is diametrically opposed to the human body’s innate circadian rhythms. Such rotation runs against research confirming that the human body, without external cues such as sunlight to reset the biological clock, naturally drifts forward to later hours each day.
This means that on a counterclockwise rotation, adjusting to the night shift is exceedingly difficult and often results in reduced alertness and performance. The harmful effect of counterclockwise rotation contributes to what is known as “industrial jet lag” because it gives the employees the sensation of constantly crossing time zones from west to east.
Having three crews cover seven days of work — a schedule common at plants that have converted from 5-day to 7-day operations — presents a related fatigue problem. When you regularly ask or require employees to work overtime, you make it difficult for them to develop regular sleep patterns — not to mention the havoc it can play with their social lives. Moreover, they become more fatigued and prone to human error, leading to costly accidents, injuries and poor-quality production. Weekend warrior crews, while less fatigued, typically cost more, have unacceptably high turnover rates and are generally inefficient due to lack of skills and experience.
Signs of Trouble
How do you know if your scheduling system is a lemon? Some of the most obvious signs include workers who show up late for work, arrive at work tired or fall asleep on the job.
Another red flag is a disproportionate number of accidents that occur during the overnight shift and with rotating crews. From 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. is the most difficult time to stay alert, so you should pay close attention to any indications that employees are unable to perform effectively during these hours.
You also should be aware of changes within your workforce that may affect how well workers adapt to working shifts. Examples include an increasing proportion of younger employees with family demands from young children, an aging workforce, an increasing number of single parents, changes in business conditions requiring more overtime, and the increasing automation of shiftworkers’ jobs.
Other warning signs — such as unacceptably high absenteeism or rising health care costs — should also be taken seriously, although they should be scrutinized closely because they may not be attributable to the scheduling system alone. It’s possible that absenteeism is caused by employee dissatisfaction with salaries, management leadership or work responsibilities that may have very little to do with scheduling.
Investigating a New Shift Schedule?
There are good and bad ways to change shift schedules. The worst way is for management to select and mandate a new schedule with limited employee involvement. Our data shows that facilities with mandated schedules on average have the highest absenteeism and turnover rates and worst employee morale of all the different selection methods.
Similarly, task team and benchmarking approaches often fail to achieve consensus, and frequently overlook critical issues that arise from implementing the schedule change - creating costly oversights and negative employee reactions.
Changing schedules isn’t simply a matter of researching some alternatives and putting them to a vote. The reality is that a schedule change is a highly complex and volatile issue that can easily become divisive and counterproductive if not developed properly.
Many companies look for a perfect schedule - not realizing that one doesn’t exist. In fact, the best schedule for any group of shiftworkers is a site specific phenomenon, derived from management, employee and biomedical criteria. Thus, the scheduling “answer” is less important then the process by which it is derived.
Instead of risking more arbitrary approaches, hundreds of round the clock companies have turned to Circadian for assistance in creative shift scheduling.
By working together with employees, unions, and management, Circadian develops schedule options that meet the business needs, satisfy worker preferences, and are compatible with human physiology to promote health and safety. The result is a healthier, happier and more productive workforce.
- Review your shift schedule with our Shift Schedule Optimization Process
- Download our complimentary white paper on Shift Scheduling and Employee Involvement
- Download our complimentary white paper on Alternative Work Schedules
- Shiftwork training course on Managing a Shiftwork Lifestyle
- Working Nights Newsletter – monthly newsletter dedicated to improving the health, safety and quality of life for shiftworkers