Managing 24/7

Managing Unscheduled Absences

(Flexibility, Multiple Options Help Shift Work

Operations Cover Last-Minute Absences)


If your organization were a bank or another office situation, it might not be a big deal if a worker called in sick at the last minute, or had to care for a sick relative on short notice.

But it’s a different story in 24/7 operations. Whether you work in law enforcement, health care, utilities, or manufacturing, it’s often critical that someone be there to fill certain shifts. In fact, according to Shiftwork Practices 2014, only 6% of shiftwork operations run short when there is an unscheduled absence (Figure 1 below). This can leave companies scrambling for options at the last minute.
CIRCADIAN Managing Unscheduled OT

FIGURE 1 - Management of Unscheduled Overtime

Coming up with a good policy to cover last-minute absences means finding a way to meet the needs of the organization without alienating the needs of the workers, who won’t enjoy being “forced in” to fill a shift because they have family obligations and other outside activities.

Ideally, your operation should be able to turn to a list of workers who have volunteered to be available for extra shifts in order to fill a vacancy. This system gives employees who want to work more hours first crack at the overtime shifts. Depending on the number of workers you employ, you might be able to fill the majority your open shifts this way.

How you manage this “call list” is up to you. Some companies organize it by seniority, offering the first shot at overtime shifts as a benefit of long tenure with the company. Other organizations rotate people through the list, moving an employee to the bottom after he’s worked one overtime shift (Figure 2).

CIRCADIAN Assigning Voluntary OTFIGURE 2 – Method of Assigning Voluntary Overtime

If no one on the call list is available, it’s a good idea to have several “next steps” in place and follow them consistently. Those next steps vary depending on your company’s policies and needs. Avoiding mandatory overtime will benefit morale, but in some cases may be unavoidable.

One Minnesota manufacturing plant covers most of its last-minute absences by asking volunteers from both the current 8-hour shift and the next shift to stay an extra 4 hours and come in 4 hours early, respectively. In a pinch, a team leader stays to cover the next shift. The company is now considering creating a “flexible staffing pool,” composed of former employees, technical school students and others, for call-ins.

At an electric utility in Alberta, Canada, workers on the voluntary on-call list can check off which particular shifts they would like to be available for (and can change their preferences at any time). If two or more workers indicate their availability for a shift, the one with the least amount of accumulated overtime is called first. Mandatory hold-overs are used only in emergencies.

For certain types of work, temporary staffing from the outside may be an option. Some temp agencies specialize in supplying industrial or warehouse workers. Such agencies can often deliver workers even on short notice, such as after a shift has begun.

Keep in mind the dangers of fatigue when creating your policies on calling in relief workers. For example, it’s far better to call in someone on the third day of his four-day break than a worker who just finished a 12-hour night shift ten hours ago.

Also watch out for overtime hogs – those employees that “pig out” on overtime, even sacrificing alertness, safety, and job performance in order to collect the maximum amount of overtime possible. Plus many become dependent upon the extra pay.

Whatever your procedure for covering last-minute absences, making workers fully informed of it keeps them in the loop and lets them know in advance what they can expect.

For more information about scheduling, or details about how to implement an employee driven Shift Schedule Optimization Process in your workplace, please call CIRCADIAN at 781-439-6300 or email a specialist at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Next Steps:

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.


Home  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Use  |  Sitemap  |  Contact Us

Subscribe to our newsletter!



Contact Information
Phone: 1.800.284.5001
Local: 1.781.439.6300


Circadian Headquarters
2 Main Street, Suite 310
Stoneham, MA, 02180, USA