Shifting Times – Can you handle it?
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Shifting Times – Can you handle it?

on 05 November 2020

​Is variety the spice of life? Things can certainly heat up under the effect of shift work. The changing shift schedules of a work ‘day’ amplifies every employment issue. Coping with shift work demands a particular character type, one who is good at planning and can go with the flow that often goes against the current.

Another numbers game

A shift scenario adds a totally different dimension to one’s work and private lives. Shift work can be of the split variety, where you are employed in a shop or catering establishment and have some hours off in the afternoon. It can be either an eight-hour type which migrates across 24 hours, or a 12-hour stint. In this category we could also include offshore workers. The pros and cons of shift work should be taken into consideration very seriously before embarking on training, for example, particularly for school-leavers who are inexperienced as to the demands of work life per se.

Out of sync

The world rotates in the same direction as the regular, more-or-less 8 to 5 office hour jobs. If you work in a sector that doesn’t adhere to this schedule, you’re spinning on a different axis and you can be left feeling out of sync. Forget attending any type of locally-run course, being able to support all of your children’s activities, giving lifts to them, or giving any kind of commitment that is based on the typical work day. Catch your favourite programme on the telly? Forget it. Shift work rules your schedule more than it does for the ‘dailies’. People will ask you what you’re doing on the weekend, or for New Year’s Eve and they can’t comprehend that you will be working – your life has a completely different rhythm to theirs. All of this can take its toll in the long-term.

Who’d do it?

Shift work suits people who like variety. Not for them the humdrum same-old same-old. They adore the fact that their work times vary, or that, in the case of shops, at least their working day is cut into two halves. A four-hour chunk is obviously much less of a strain. One of the forgotten downsides of split shifts is that is also means twice the travelling time, therefore double travelling expenses, stress and minus time from your free time. This detail might sound trite, but our summer heat also necessitates at least one more shower and change of clothing. All of these frustrations can add up to a serious negative strain on your health and happiness.

With 12-hour shifts, however, the scenario is different. Imagine, you never have to face the same traffic jams day in day out. You can actually sometimes take your exercise during the day and during the week, or run vital errands without eating into your vacation leave. Your days off don’t coincide with the crowds, so you can enjoy peaceful evenings out without the weekend mayhem. A shop assistant at the airport revealed that the 12-hour day/night/rest/off shift has one big advantage: you get so much daytime off time that you end up not ‘wasting’ your vacation leave to run errands. Leave can then easily be taken in chunks.

If you opt for shift work, you will need to become incredibly adept at planning and communication in both your personal and work lives. Organisation of time off needs to be done way in advance, because it can affect a four-day cycle for both you and your replacement.

Home truths

But can your nearest and dearest cope with your chameleon schedule? Childcare, for instance, takes on an even more difficult facet than it already does. For the airport sales assistant’s colleague, a woman who is married with three children, the same job means that she is so most often a ‘mobile mum’, keeping in touch with her kids over the phone. This lady needs not only a partner who can be there for the children when she is not, but also a network of relatives willing to lend a hand.

The night birds

It is not a cliché’ that ‘things’ may go on during the night shift more easily than they do during the day. No need to go into details. Not for nothing have employers tried to keep women away from night-time jobs, in the past. But do watch out for the trust issues that it may bring up in your relationships.

Night shifts have also been found to seriously have an adverse affect on workers’ health. Night shift workers tend to drink more coffee and to have a higher body mass index. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, night-shift work causes desynchronization of the work and sleep periods with the circadian rhythm (body clock). Such desynchrony leads to reduced alertness, fatigue, disturbances to sleep and to the normal metabolic response to meals consumed at night, and consequently may be detrimental to health and safety. Increased light at night was found to improve alertness and performance and may possibly improve metabolic responses to meals during night shift conditions.

Health and safety

As stated above, shift work seems to exacerbate every employment issue, and health and safety are no exception. Shift work is typical of responsible jobs in transportation, industry, health care and public safety. Our biological development has not been able to keep pace with social developments. The disparity is apparent in problems associated with shift work. One of the most significant problems is fatigue. In Finland, for example, fatigue has been estimated to be the key factor in as many as 41% of accidental injuries and deaths caused by human error.

Means of combating fatigue at work are the organisation of working hours. The chances of making mistakes are increased during any type of shift work. It is essential to minimise monotony and give the worker an active role. Taking regular breaks during a long shift is also vital. Eye and back strain, repetitive strain injury, shorter sleep periods and varicose veins are just some of the health problems that need to be guarded against. Shift work has been linked to higher risks of some chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers. Exposure to any kinds of toxins, including photocopy machines and cigarette smoke, highlights the need for adequate ventilation and time-out. Hotel receptionists, for example, are often required to stand for hours, the women in high heels. Is this practice really necessary?

Ergonomically designed and well-lit work spaces are even more important when working long hours. Make sure that your employer is aware of the above and insist that you are allowed to take all of your breaks. By law, the rest break is an uninterrupted period of not less than fifteen minutes, and the worker is entitled to spend it away from his workstation, if he has one.

Practical advice includes the use of support tights, comfortable, safe shoes and of avoiding excessive carbohydrates in the form of pasta and bread in order to stay alert. Go easy on the coffee and fizzy drinks. Caffeine may help keep you awake, but heavy doses in the long term wear out the body, actually depleting you of energy. The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health states that a single dose of caffeine is effective at the beginning of a night shift. They also suggest that a nap of 30 minutes during the night shift decreases the probability of lapses.

The trend towards a 24-hour-society means an increase in ergonomically unsuitable and potentially family-wrecking working hours. However, night shifts and weekend jobs still offer extra earning possibilities to anyone needing to moonlight and in many sectors they are part and parcel of a chosen field. It is a case of keeping your eyes open – literally – to the pitfalls. Keep abreast of research regarding health issues so that the benefits of shift work will continue to outweigh the downside.

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