9 Ways to be a Better Shiftwork Manager

talking to co worker-no corbisBeing the intermediary between the demands of corporate management and the needs of shiftworkers is a challenging position, especially in 24/7 operations.

We’ve found that the following 9 tips have been the most helpful to 24/7 operations managers throughout CIRCADIAN’s 30 years of consulting non-stop workforces.

These 9 tips will help you to bridge communication between corporate managers and shiftworkers, while still attending to the needs of both parties.

TIP 1: Educate corporate managers on the special challenges, risks and liabilities of shiftwork operations

It’s hard for a manager from corporate headquarters to stay connected with the challenges of 24/7 shiftwork operations. Yet, corporate managers have the authority to make decisions that can inadvertently jeopardize the alertness, safety and performance of their shiftworkers.

Many of these decisions can undermine the effectiveness of a 24-hour operation by failing to account for the limitations of human functioning.

Decisions made on topics such as: equipment purchases, engineering design specs, energy-saving policies, productivity, staffing levels and service objectives, can be detrimental to the company as a whole if the biological variables that greatly influence these factors aren’t taken into consideration.

Facilities managers are in the unique position to educate corporate headquarters about the realities, challenges and the delicate nature of 24/7 operations.

TIP 2: Designate and certify a specific “shiftwork manager” at each site to optimize worker alertness

Ensuring optimal levels of alertness among workers requires continuous attention to the multiple factors that influence fatigue and alertness. One effective way to boost alertness is to designate one individual as “shiftwork manager” in each 24-hour facility.

The best candidate for a shiftwork manager position is an individual who has experience with operations and working night shifts.

The responsibilities of the shiftwork manager include:

  • Managing shiftwork and related human factors information
  • Serving as the resident shiftwork expert at the 24/7 operations facility
  • Keeping up to date with technical information on fatigue management technology
  • Conducting periodic fatigue risk assessments
  • Coordinating the training of workers on managing sleep, nutrition, and other aspects of a shiftwork lifestyle
  • Providing input into decisions regarding changes to practices that impact the nature of the shiftworker’s job (e.g. work schedules, new equipment, man-machine interfaces, etc.).

The designated “Shiftwork Manager” will require training to appropriately equip him or her for the position.

Education and training programs should comprehensively cover the established best practices of fatigue mitigation in shiftwork operations. These programs should also provide a detailed introduction into fatigue management technology, circadian sleep and alertness physiology, and shiftwork fatigue risk.

TIP 3: Recognize the value of shiftwork experience when hiring managers and supervisors

Often times, problematic situations in 24-hour operations occur when decisions directly impacting shiftworkers are made by managers who have little/no personal experience with working a night shift.

Managers without shiftwork experience have a tendency to treat shiftworkers like regular daytime employees, failing to account for the circadian factors associated with night work. This increases the chances that an operation will face issues involving safety, staffing levels, overtime, scheduling and communication, and potentially other issues.

When possible, hire applicants with direct experience in shiftwork operations, night shifts and handling employee fatigue. If you can’t hire someone with this expertise, then you will need to provide education and training on these topics.

TIP 4: Expose new managers to a shiftwork lifestyle for several shift cycles

The best way to raise managers’ awareness of the challenges of particular shiftwork operation is to have new managers experience rotating shiftwork or a fixed night shift for a sustained period of time.

By experiencing night work or shift rotations, they can understand the fatiguing effects of shiftwork, the problems that arise with daytime sleep, and the realities of working the night shift.

It’s important that managers are removed from their disciplinary roles during this process. In order to observe what takes place behind the scenes — the unofficial napping, the lowering of lights and the various ways that shiftworkers cover for each other to make the job manageable – managers need to be viewed as non-threatening to the shiftwork crews.

While managers can participate in this experience at any time, it’s ideal to have managers complete this activity when first training for their managerial position.

TIP 5: Develop your expertise in shiftwork management

Managers are responsible for a 24/7 operation where microsleeps and inattentive behaviors can be commonplace. It’s important to develop an understanding of human limitations and how to optimize work performance and safety around these limitations.

In addition to specialized training, managers of 9-5 businesses often have to have a general knowledge base on other subjects, but human sleep-wake physiology is rarely one of them!

Reading blogs like Shifting Work Perspectives, along with attending seminars and courses on shiftwork and fatigue management, are great ways to develop your own expertise on this important subject.

TIP 6: Spend some time with the night crew

When possible, try to find time for projects that give you the reason to work with night crews. This will reacquaint you with the challenges of 24/7 operations, and give you a chance to experience the working conditions that your shiftworkers face.

Of course, managerial presence will change the behavior of workers – however, completing a night shift periodically will provide management with useful information about the shiftworker’s challenges while simultaneously building relationships with workers that you may not frequently see.

Demonstrating concern for the challenges associated with shiftwork helps to build trust, loyalty and two-way communication between shiftworkers and managers.

TIP 7: Ensure human design specs are incorporated into company planning

During business planning, consideration must be taken for the unique nature of 24/7 operations.

This often requires a cultural change within an organization about worker fatigue and the biological limitations of humans. Cultural changes won’t be accomplished overnight – though it’s well worth the necessary effort to obtain them.

Changing an organization’s culture requires a systematic effort to bring new patterns of thinking into an organization.

Bringing in outside expertise can be quite helpful in establishing credibility behind the ideas being presented. This could include an expert in the application of human alertness technology to 24/7 operations to speak at company meetings and safety conferences.

You can send relevant articles to fellow managers and senior executives to encourage them to rethink some of their old ways of doing business. We suggest a few of the following articles:

TIP 8: Benchmark against the best shiftwork operations

In order to develop a level of excellence it is very helpful to understand how your operation compares with other non-stop environments.

It is helpful to find someone with extensive experience in shiftwork operations both inside and outside of your company, and to obtain the appropriate normative databases to help benchmark your operation against other comparable sites.

By doing so, you can set goals for improvement of your shiftwork operations that are attainable, and thus increase the overall excellence of your operation.

TIP 9: Avoid critical management decisions at 3 A.M.

Some of the most disastrous management decisions in history have been made late at night or early in the morning.

Notable examples include: the decision to switch off the safety systems at Chernobyl to accelerate the testing process; the decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger in record-low, gasket-cracking temperatures, and the decision to shoot down an unidentified aircraft over Soviet airspace, which turned out to be Korean Airlines Flight 007.

These disasters were each caused by fatigued managers who made decisions that seemed logical at the time.

The lesson is: when possible, avoid making decisions when you are fatigued, especially in the middle of the night. The old saying “sleep on it” is frequently the most sensible decision to make when fatigued. Trying to push through to a decision, no matter how urgent, often creates consequences far graver than the costs of delaying action.

The Take-Away

Being a better manager means being the voice for both the needs of workers and the logic of corporate management. By understanding the challenges that workers face on a daily basis, corporate management can make informed decisions that effectively optimize the workforce.

This is a long term campaign — not just a single task — that will ultimately result in a substantial pay off, not only in terms of the increased profitability and competitiveness of the company, but also in terms of the improved health, safety and lifestyle of the key employees on whom you rely to give their best 24 hours a day.


Of course, learning the details behind the circadian rhythms of sleep and alertness is no easy task. That’s why CIRCADIAN consulting experts provide specialized training for both managers and workers to optimize 24/7 operations in a variety of ways. Interested in learning more about CIRCADIAN expertise and services?

CIRCADIAN 24/7 Workforce Solutions

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