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Working the night shift: Practical solutions to longstanding problems

Around 14 percent of the working population (3.6 million people) report to working shifts 'most of the time'. Shift work has its advantages for both employers and employees, from maximising plant use and reducing production costs, to better earnings for fewer hours' work and opportunities for flexitime.

Shift work is essential to many industries and services, whether it's down to the needs of a continuous production cycle or the 24-hour demands made on emergency and hospital services.

It has long been known that some schedules, particularly night shifts, can be more demanding on employee wellbeing and health than others. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified undesirable consequences, including disruption to the body clock, fatigue, sleeping difficulties, disturbed appetite and digestion, reliance on sedatives or stimulants, social and domestic problems and other symptoms of ill health.

Recent research published in the British Medical Journal, which aimed to synthesise the results of 34 studies with a total subject group of more than 2 million people, concluded that people working night shifts were slightly more likely to suffer from coronary 'events' or stroke, although there was no sign of an associated increase in mortality rates.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health claims that poor planning in night-shift rotas affects employee health, saps performance and increases the likelihood of accidents.

Employers can take simple preventative steps to manage the risks of shift work and improve employee wellbeing.

First, there should be a clear shift-management policy in place and if the organisation is big enough, one or more individuals should be appointed to take responsibility for it. The risks of the shift work need to be assessed in consultation with shiftworkers so that improvements to the shift schedule can be made.

These may include limiting shift length, avoiding demanding or dangerous work at night and allowing for proper recovery time between night shifts. Work variety in the shift plan can relieve fatigue and promote alertness.

Permanent night shifts should be replaced with rotating shifts if possible. HSE research suggests that rotating shifts every two to three days is best, or failing that slow rotations of at least three weeks. Weekly or fortnightly rotations are least comfortable for workers, whose bodies will just have started to adapt to the new pattern when it is switched again. Forward-rotating schedules (moving from morning to afternoon to night shifts) are better than backward-rotating ones in terms of sleep loss and fatigue.

Raising awareness about maintaining an active lifestyle and watching out for early danger signs of health problems could also mitigate the risk.

Acas provides guidance and support on how to organise shift work, and flexible working generally, in the booklet pdf icon Advisory booklet - Flexible working and work-life balance [347kb] as well as training on Health, work and wellbeing issues.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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