Time for shifts in management priorities?

Time Management
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The organisation of shift work and management of its potential effects on staff are “becoming issues for more and more employers as the 24/7 economy grows”, according to a recent Health & Safety article. Around 14% of the UK working population (3.6m) now do shift work (source HSE), in some professions such as the emergency services, this percentage is obviously far higher.

Having been a ‘shift worker’ for the vast majority of my working life I can confirm these factors and perhaps more importantly, I fully understand many of the issue involved, both from an employee and management perspective… There is a simple given with the management of shift working; you will never please all the people all the time however, wouldn’t it be more beneficial (for all concerned) if we could at the very least, try to please most of the people, most of the time?

For nearly all of my thirty years police service I worked shifts, it was one of the aspects of the job that I (and others) found attractive about the career, that and the daily diversity of work. It provided me with a level of work/life balance not always available in other types of employment. But, it’s also a factor many often fail to understand when they join the force; being a ‘shift worker’ is actually a way of life.

The impacts of shift working aren’t usually fully appreciated by new employees and/or their management, especially if those people have little or no experience of working shifts, in previous or current roles.

Long term consequences of disturbing natural circadian rhythms have been investigated. A study by Knutsson et al. in 1986 found that shift workers who had worked in that method for 15 years or more were 300% more likely to develop ischemic heart disease…(wikipedia.org)

Many would expect the police to have a handle on most of the issues involved, having many years experience of a 24/7 role however; the amount of management tinkering with shift patterns over recent years would tend to negate this fact. It should be said however, most of these attempts at change have been born out of financial reasoning i.e. improvement of workforce resilience to meet demand for the lowest cost possible. That, or a mostly self-interested desire to be, the man/woman responsible for changing the world on their CV perhaps?

Efficient management of shift workers presents additional problems for those new to the management role in a 24/7 workplace environment. Which in its self is a factor often compounded by managers who have risen to the top of their organisation, relatively quickly and with limited personal experience of shift working. But, failure to understand and make allowances for the impacts of shift working can also have negative impacts upon the organisation. Issues such as reduced productivity, increased levels of sickness and the propensity for higher levels of workplace accidents and injury should never be underestimated.

HSEHnts & Tips for Shift-Workers: People vary in how they cope with shift work depending on their health, fitness, age, lifestyle, and domestic responsibilities– some adapt well, others do not. Whilst we cannot change our inbuilt characteristics, it is possible to alter our behaviour or make lifestyle changes that may make shift work more tolerable…(more)

John Wilkinson and Dick Rudd recently described what needs to be done, using two case studies to illustrate how shift work should and should not be managed, in the latest edition of Safety & Health Practitioner (SHP), the monthly journal of the Institute of Safety & Health (IOSH). This article is highly recommended to those required to manage shift workers.

Irrespective of the normal organisational issues around efficiency of operation and value for money, employers also have a duty of care towards their employees. This management duty is covered under general health and safety law, as well as certain other regulations, such as those governing working time. That said, there is no specific definition of shift work in law per se.

Perhaps some of the problems presented by shift work should be addressed right from the start? Often, little or no consideration is given to the subject at the recruitment stage in many organisations. A mishmash of poorly communicated individual and  organisational requirements or full understanding of the issues compound this. By way of example; I know of one case where a police recruit completed their basic training and was told – “congratulations and welcome aboard, your first posting is night shift in the city.” The hapless soul was absolutely horrified and replied “sorry I don’t do shifts!” Evidence of individual/organisation expectations/requirements not being fully understood.

There has also been a great deal of political noise lately (see Lord Young Review – Common Sense Common Safety) that tends to suggest – Health & Safety legislation has a negative impact business. But, as the HSE pointed out, Health and safety is “used as an excuse” for not doing things correctly. However, it appears H&S may not be the impact that many perceive it to be?

A recent survey showed that the threat of health and safety claims by employees has little or no impact on business decisions in almost half of companies; dispelling the myth that firms are battling a new compensation culture. Caroline May, a spokesperson for Norton Rose LLP, who carried out the survey said: “What our study has shown though is that the commercial impact on business of health and safety legislation is relatively minor.” Whether that means business isn’t worried or, doesn’t actually understand the impacts of non compliance is another issue.

Once again, it isn’t H&S law or guidance that is at fault here, it has more to do with media fuelled public misconception and a strong element of management misapplication… There is a world of difference between all the lip-service documentation and actually implementing change to minimise risk. Managers often tend to create a false vision and perception of safety action. Issuing someone with a yellow jacket and telling them to direct traffic in the middle of a motorway, without the correct training, doesn’t make the operation any less dangerous. That  is one of the reasons  How high-visibility took over Britain… In many respects simply packaging without substance.

Many of the more difficult issues (like shift working) that managers face today become so, due to a combination of differing factors however, the ‘human’ aspect is one of the greatest. By this I mean we often tend not to consider our fellow workers as humans or in a humane manner. We tend to see our staff as tools or simple components of the final processes.

There is a pressing need for fundamental shifts in some of the predominant management styles, priorities, methods and ethics… Greater levels of experience in the task those managers are responsible for managing also wouldn’t go amiss!

See more information about Shift Working and differing shift patterns etc at wikipedia.org

One thought on “Time for shifts in management priorities?

  1. Not enough being done on this – our early days as cops almost certainly increased diabetes risk. Outside manufacturing I always found real H & S ignored and trivial stuff a bureaucratic nightmare.

    My guess is we need radical changes to make a lot of necessary shift work less dangerous.


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