Shift work is the mainstay of many workplaces and involves rostering on employees to work set blocks of time. In 2022, workplaces are still adjusting to post-pandemic trends but shift work and its link to the 24/7 economy is on the rise. Strategies for surviving shift work have never been more important for staff.
The definition of shift work varies across industry sectors and the globe. Also known as “non-standard work schedules”, shift work essentially refers to schedules in which the majority of an employee’s work hours falls outside a typical daytime Monday-to-Friday. This includes evenings, nights and rotating shifts (alternating between day, evening, or night shifts but on a fixed schedule). As well as split shifts, irregular hours and regular weekend work.
Shift work in Australia
About 1.5 million Australians are currently employed in shift work in a range of industries, including health, emergency services, manufacturing, hospitality, and mining. This rotating labour structure contributes to increased access to essential services and a vibrant economy. But it can also be associated with poorer health and lifestyle outcomes for shift workers.
According to Australian legislation (Fair Work Act 2009), an employee is considered to be a shift worker if they:
- work for a business where shifts are rostered 24-hours a day, seven days a week
- are regularly rostered to work those shifts
- regularly work Sundays and public holidays
Why is shift work important?
The shift work system first started with modern industrial manufacturing in England in the late 18th century. The world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill ran day and night with two twelve-hour shifts. Effectively, the shift work was made up of recurring periods in which different groups of workers did the same job in relay. It allowed a 24-hour production process to meet demand.
Shift work has evolved with the modern economy and spread to a wide range of industries and service sectors. When employees work in shifts and can pick their hours, they are generally happier and more productive. By setting their schedule, employees can have more control over how they go about their day, giving them the ability to maintain a work-life balance.
For example, employees who work 12-hour shifts, have the advantage of twice as many days off each year compared to those who have 8-hour shifts. This allows for more free time to enjoy hobbies, spend time with family, and take vacations more frequently.
New trends in shift work
A recent McKinsey Global Institute report, “The future of work after COVID-19” (February 2021), noted the importance of the physical dimension of work was elevated by the COVID pandemic. While many workers rapidly adjusted to working from home, other workers deemed essential continued to work in hospitals and grocery stores, on garbage trucks and in warehouses.
Shift work is now stepping up to resource the labour requirements of businesses operating extended hours to meet the demands of the 24/7 economy. As more employees become shift workers, even more are needed to service their requirements when staff come off shift at various hours of the day or night. Shift work is also needed to meet growing production demands.
The MGI report also notes the pandemic accelerated existing trends in remote work, e-commerce, and automation. Up to 25 percent more workers than previously estimated needed to switch occupations to stay employed. While some companies shifted to flexible workspaces after positive experiences with remote work during the pandemic.
Reorganisation of physical workplace locations has also allowed employee work hours to become more flexible and companies to extend their hours of operation. This has led to some companies newly adopting a formal shift work schedule.
Lockdowns pushed companies to rapidly adopt new behaviours like enhancing digital infrastructure to support the business and their remote workforce. For example, with more shift workers now working off-site, some businesses are using employee timeclocks to keep track of staff.
Tips for surviving shift work
Forming new habits can improve the impact of working long or disjointed hours. Planning is key to coping well with a flexible work schedule and making it work for you. To avoid sleep problems and associated health and wellbeing issues try the following tips for surviving shift work.
- The best way to get through a long day is to keep busy. If you work in a service industry your day will be more enjoyable if you make an extra effort to engage with your customers.
- Try to keep at an even body temperature to avoid fatigue. If it’s hot, drink water to stay hydrated. If it’s cold, make sure you wear the right amount of clothing, to stay comfortable.
- Working in a chaotic environment causes stress and wears you out faster. Try to stay calm under pressure and not take things too personally.
- Stick to healthy snacks like fruits and cut vegetables when you are on a late or night shift. This will curb your hunger and avoid filling up on junk food or overeating when you get home.
- When your shift is over it is important to switch off. Whether it’s the walk or the drive home, try playing your favourite music or podcast to relax your mind.
- Do not engage in excessive exercise in the three hours before sleep. This is stimulating to the body and will make sleeping difficult even if you are worn out.
- When you get home don’t go straight to bed. Try another activity for hour like reading a book, light stretching exercises or a warm bath. This will improve the quality of your sleep.
- Turn off or minimise your use of technology for at least half an hour before going to bed. This will allow you to truly switch off. Over-stimulation stops the brain from winding down and disrupts sleep. Instead, try completing a simple chore like folding the washing to self-regulate.
- Good sleep hygiene has a direct impact on the quality of sleep. This includes blocking out noise and light during sleep and maintaining a regular, predictable sleep routine. Sleeping in a comfortable, cool environment will also benefit you.
- Daytime sleeping is usually lighter, shorter and of poorer quality than night-time sleep. If it is too noisy to sleep consider using earplugs, white noise or background music to mask external noises.
- Try planning ahead and preparing easily stored base meals. For example, pre-cut vegetables and proteins for stir-fries. Try making a big pot of tomato-based pasta sauce and freezing portions. You will then eat better with nutritious meals on stand-by.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine when you have an early shift, so you start the next day fresh.
- On your day off don’t lie around all day. Plan an activity so you feel like you’ve accomplished something just for yourself.