Employees working extended hours—from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.—have significantly higher rates of absenteeism and turnover, according to a shift work practices survey issued by Circadian Technologies, a consulting and research firm based in Lexington, Mass. Survey results are based on responses from managers at 550 extended-hours facilities in the United States and Canada, representing more than 130,000 full-time and 28,000 part-time shift workers.
Extended-hour and shift workers face multiple problems, according to Sam Sirois, senior consultant at Circadian. "Shift workers only sleep an average of 5.5 hours a day," he says. "Even worse, shift workers suffer higher rates of stomach problems, heart disease and sleep disorders. Also, communication with spouses can be difficult. Parents working fixed night shifts are more likely to experience divorce or separation."
The good news is that specialized lifestyle education training programs are working to improve the health issues of shift workers and extended-hour employees. These unique training programs provide employees with strategies for coping with sleep, health, safety and family difficulties. According to Circadian's survey results, these training programs have been shown to be the most effective countermeasure to turnover and health issues related to extended work hours.
Circadian conducted a joint study with Kennecott Energy, one of the largest mining companies in the United States, with headquarters in Gillette, Wyo., to study the impact of lifestyle education training on the operators of its Colowyo mine.
The study began with the collection of sleep/wake data from 19 operators at the mine. These 19 individuals volunteered to fill out sleep/wake logs for one month. Three additional operators (22 total) filled out a subjective survey about their sleep habits, diet, family/home life, fatigue, alertness, health and safety.
After the initial data collection, the operators attended Circadian's Managing a Shift Work Lifestyle (MSL) training program, which helps extended-hours employees cope with the special issues associated with working long or irregular shifts. The four-hour sessions train workers on how to get better sleep, tips for using naps effectively, how to improve the shift-worker diet, maintaining alertness, safety and balancing work and home life. About one month after the training, the operators filled out an additional month of sleep/wake logs and completed the surveys.
Following the training, 67 percent report getting more than five hours of sleep when working nights compared to only 45 percent prior to the training. Prior to training, 82 percent had stayed awake for more than 18 hours at some point in the previous week, while after the training, only 67 percent had done so. More than half (54 percent) indicated making some changes to their sleeping environment that would make it easier for them to get to sleep and stay asleep, especially during the day.
Although there was no schedule change associated with the training, there were some noticeable differences between the pre- and post-training groups with regard to rating their current schedule. For example, before the training 41 percent found it very or often difficult to fulfill domestic responsibilities, while after the training only 23 percent found this very or often difficult.
"This is due to a better overall feeling of health, alertness, morale and performance, which leads to a different perception of both work and home life," Sirois says.
Overall, the program was well received by both Colowyo mine managers and operators. "The MSL program was very positive," says Rob Atkinson, Colowyo operations manager. "We are now developing a plan to begin spreading the training across our operations." —G.J.