How to Optimize a Night Shift Schedule- A Guide for Employers

Employees who work night shifts often experience fatigue on the job, which is cause for concern for everyone, managers included, as exhaustion can lead to safety issues if left unaddressed.

Tending to such matters is essential for improving productivity, reducing absenteeism, and keeping your valued employees happy, but the dilemma therein lies in determining the solution to the problem when the problem is the job.

Here's a look at how to optimize schedules for night shifts that benefits the business, as well as your employees' wellbeing.

Recognizing Shift Work Disorder

Shift Work Disorder, or SWD, is a common issue affecting those who work rotating shifts and night shifts. Symptoms associated with shift work include excessive sleepiness or sleep disorders, such as difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, increased irritability, and chronic headaches.

When work schedules begin interfering with sleep, people will feel excessive sleepiness on a day-to-day-basis and could be experiencing SWD. The disorder also takes a toll on home-life, health, safety, and work performance.

A sleep expert can help diagnose this issue. Treatment may include medication, but it can often be resolved with light exposure or adjusting your schedule.

Schedule Optimization

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If a job obligates employees to work night shifts, as many industries do, such as hospitals/healthcare, public safety/law enforcement, amongst others, that doesnt mean that personal health needs to be compromised in the process.

There are a number of measures that can be taken before, after, and even during a shift, that make acclimating to the non-traditional hours bearable. Whether stuck working a late shift or even swing shift, these tips will help your employees better equip themselves for upcoming shifts.

Properly Prepare Before a Shift

  • Most people can adapt fairly easily to a two- or three-hour change in a sleep cycle. If you know an employee will be starting a night shift in a few days, remind that team member of the schedule change in advance. Also, encourage that he/she gradually adjust sleep and wake times, ultimately getting closer to meeting the new schedule. Adjusting the time to go to bed and getting up by two hours earlier each day will make the transition go more smoothly.
  • To combat consistent sleepiness during shifts, recommend employees take naps before a shift starts. A long nap between two to three hours before work will really help fight fatigue later into the night. Even for the individuals who are night owls and perhaps find it more difficult to take a nap in the afternoon, still try and sway them into squeezing in a short nap before, if possible. Naps that last longer than 30 to 40 minutes put the body in a state of deep sleep, which is great for reducing sleep debt. However, the body does need at least an hour to wake and fully become alert.

Stay Alert While Working

  • Employees should spend some time in bright light before and during the beginning of a shift, as light is crucial for staying awake and alert. Employers also need to ensure that break areas are well lit. This helps keep employees alert when arriving early to a shift and when taking breaks.
  • When scheduling employees for the same shifts on consecutive days, ensure that their meal periods are also scheduled during the same time, as well. When it comes to adjusting or establishing a set program, consistent repetition is key.
  • Short naps of between 15 - 30 minutes are effective for increasing alertness surprisingly, more than caffeine. Permitting employees to take these power naps when needed, and of course, when there is enough coverage, will aid in getting employees through long night shifts.
  • Everyone should be conscious of caffeine consumption. While caffeine helps boost alertness early in a shift, be careful not to drink it too late into a shift, as it can interfere with the quality of sleep when its time for bed.

Get Home Safely

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  • Driving home when exhausted, both employees and managers alike is incredibly dangerous. Sleepy drivers are less alert, therefore more of a liability on the road, as they can fall asleep at the wheel and less conscientious of other reckless drivers. Consider utilizing paid transportation to get home (Lyft, Uber, taxi) or carpooling with co-workers. The importance of safety needs to be stressed to your entire team
  • If employees begin shifts in the evening, and its light out when they leave work, remind them to wear sunglasses on their way home. The change in lighting interferes with melatonin production, making it difficult to fall asleep once home.

Sleep Better

  • Establishing a consistent bedtime routine will help the body prepare to fall asleep and when. Taking part in activities to unwind, like taking a hot shower, listening to soothing music, or reading helps the body fall into a state of rest.
  • Its recommended to not keep a clock next to the bed, as tracking the time makes it more difficult to fall asleep.
  • Keep the sleeping area dark, preventing as much light as you can from seeping into the room by using an eye mask or blackout curtains.
  • Block out the sound by using earplugs, keeping the bedroom as quiet as possible while sleeping. Thick carpeting and curtains can also go a long way in deadening outside noise.

Ensure Proper Recovery Between Shifts

  • Exercising regularly helps maintain health and allows the body to adapt more easily to change, as well as overcome shift fatigue. If your facility has the room for it, consider opening a gym in the building for your employees to use when they are off the clock. Another alternative is to offer gym/healthcare memberships to the company's health benefits plan.
  • Maintaining a good diet is also greatly recommended. As a company, you can promote healthy eating by supplying your breakroom's snack variety or vending machines with healthier options.

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