Managing 24/7

Shift Work, Baby Boomers & Retirement:

Tips for Managing an Aging 24/7 Workforce

3 Questions...
The first wave of baby boomers have turned 65, and millions more will be hitting the traditional retirement age in the years to come. For shift work operations, particularly those with older workforces, the three questions they should be asking as baby boomers reach retirement age are:

  1. Am I facing an impending labor shortage?
  2. How do I retain my current highly-skilled senior workers?
  3. If I retain my senior shiftworkers, how do I ensure they remain safe and healthy?

Impending Labor Shortage
The impact of the baby boomers retiring is a hot topic among economists. While there is much debate about what will happen, researchers at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce are predicting that the U.S. economy will face a shortage of 5 millions workers with the necessary education and training by 2020 (1).

For shift work operations that depend on senior workers, it’s a good idea to start planning on how to deal with this potential labor shortage. Some strategies being utilized by HR departments are:

  1. Staggering multiple retirements over a period of years;
  2. Implementing training programs for more junior employees; and
  3. Encouraging senior workers to stay on for a few more years. 

Shift Work, Aging, and Safety
As for health and safety, some assume that as workers get older they will develop more problems with shiftwork. This is not entirely true.
In a research article that reviewed multiple field studies on how age and working shiftwork effects sleep, fatigue, performance, accidents and health, the results were mixed:

“Two studies reported more problems in older people, four studies reported opposite results, while in five studies no significant age-shift work interaction was observed. From across-shift comparisons (six studies), it was deduced that older compared with younger workers have more sleep problems with night shifts, while the opposite is true for morning shifts. This review did find some differences between older and younger workers, but did not find evidence for the suggestion of more shift work problems in older workers.” (2)

Sleep and Aging 
Sleep could be the area most directly affected by age. With age, it becomes harder to fall asleep, harder to stay asleep, and harder to achieve the necessary amount of restorative deep sleep.

A related sleep issue is that circadian rhythms change as we get older. First, we tend to wake up and go to bed earlier. For some people, the natural morning wake-up time can change by as much as two hours. This increase in “morningness” (i.e. earlier wake-up time) can have a negative effect because it can make it harder to sleep in the daytime.

Along with increased morningness, age also may make circadian rhythms less flexible. Coping with shift changes can become more difficult because your body takes longer to get used to working at night after several days off.

Suggested Practices for Operations with Older Workforces
To help maintain the health and reduce the fatigue of your more senior workers, CIRCADIAN® suggests the following for your entire workforce:

  1. Screen for sleep disorders (some common sleep problems, such as sleep apnea are more prevalent in older workers)
  2. Encourage healthy lifestyles and tailor training to address shiftwork-specific health problems
  3. Review shift schedules. It’s important to recognize that a schedule that worked well 15 years ago may not work as well now with an older workforce.
  4. Monitor overtime distribution to prevent overtime hogs. For the sake of safety, alert work performance and legal liability, you need to keep an eye out for overtime hogs (i..e employees that “pig-out” on overtime). For example, a senior worker that has a pension plan linked to their salary in the last 5 years of employment might be very motivated to grab as much overtime as possible.
  5. Monitor fatigue throughout the operation, especially in the safety sensitive, quality critical jobs

By taking these steps, you’ll not only create a safer work environment for your workforce, but you’ll also make postponing retirement a more appealing option to the senior workforce.

Tips for Older Shiftworkers
Below we have listed some tips from the Working Nights Newsletter for managing a shiftwork lifestyle as you age.

  • Make sleep a priority. The older you get, the harder it becomes to tough it out through the night shift when you’re sleep deprived. Make sure you set aside enough time each day to get enough sleep, and that you take all the necessary steps to block out sound, light, and other disturbances in your bedroom.
  • Watch what you eat. By your 40th birthday, the cast iron stomach you had as a 20 year old is a faded memory. You’ll have less stomach discomfort if you go easy on caffeine, stick to low-fat, high-fiber diet and avoid eating large meals after 11 p.m.
  • Exercise regularly. A program of moderate exercise can make a big difference in reducing age’s effect on coping with shiftwork. Regular exercise – walking, biking, swimming or aerobics – may help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and adapt to shift changes more quickly.
  • Talk to your doctor. Make sure your physician knows you’re a shiftworker and is familiar with your days on/days off pattern. This will give him or her a better understanding of the health issues you face.
  • Share ideas. If you’re experiencing fatigue or health problems for the first time, it may be helpful to compare notes with co-workers your age or a few years older. They can share coping strategies they have found most effective. Make an effort to keep an open mind – even if you’ve worked shifts for 20 years.  age

Advantages of Age
Although there’s no denying aging’s effect on sleep, the good news is that older workers have several advantages over their younger counterparts that can make it easier to handle shiftwork. For example, people in their late 40’s and 50’s usually don’t have young children in the house. With fewer domestic demands on time, they can develop routines that make it easier to deal with shiftwork. Similarly, older workers tend to have better housing conditions. They’re less likely to be living in apartments with noisy neighbors – and more likely to have comfortable sleeping quarters.

Finally, with experience comes wisdom. Through trial and error, older workers often develop effective personal coping strategies for sleeping, eating and maintaining family relationships. workforce.


1)    Allie Bidwell, “Report: Economy Will Face Shortage of 5 Millions Workers in 2020” U.S News and World Report, July 8, 2013
2)    Blok MM and de Looze MP. “What is the evidence for less shift work tolerance in older workers?” Ergonomics. 2011 Mar;54(3):221-32
3)    Working Nights Newsletter. Circadian Information LP. Learn more at

Next Steps:

•    On-Site Workshop: Best Shift Scheduling & Staffing Practices - CIRCADIAN offers On-Site Seminars to help your entire team understand and learn how to identify and implement the best shift schedule for your operation.

•    Working Nights™ Newsletter – Monthly newsletter filled with tips and ideas to maximize the benefits of Working Nights (view free sample).

•    Working Nights™ Health & Safety Guide – This easy-to-read guide helps workers better adapt to the demands of shiftwork.

•    Fatigue Training Online – The premier online fatigue management training program for the 24/7 workforce.

Have a Question? Need Help?

For over 30 years, CIRCADIAN has been helping shiftwork operations around the world.  Feel free to contact us by clicking here.

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