People + Process = Performance

More Negative Effects From Shift Work: Obesity

It is becoming more and more apparent that shift work has a negative effect on workers’ performance, injury level, sleep quality and quantity and overall health.  In recent blogs I’ve shared studies and articles that showed the increased work-related injuries in shift work employees, and the negative effects caused by worker fatigue in general.  Another study, Job Stress and Work Schedules in Relation to Obesity was recently released in the Journal of Nursing Administration that showed a strong correlation between shift work and obesity among nurses.  Specifically, the study surveyed 2,103 nurses and of those nurses 55% were obese.   Kihye Han, Ph.D., R.N., postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland School of Nursing stated, “Long work hours and shift work adversely affect quantity and quality of sleep, which often interferes with adherence to healthy behavior and increases obesity.”  I whole heartedly agree with that statement!

Other studies published in the journal have found that long hours along with a lack of time off from work was often related to patient mortality or found that shift work results in poor sleep which then results in a greater chance for patient care errors.  Although these studies were done on nurses there are similar studies that have been done on other occupations that show the same effects in regards lack of sleep quality and greater chance for errors and injury.

So then the question that comes to my ergonomist mind is “What can/should be done to the work environment/systems/policies to minimize the negative effects of shift work on the workers as well as on the people who receive the products made by or care provided by those shift workers?  Is there a way to prevent fatigue and increase the quality/quantity of sleep?  Is there a way to support and encourage healthy eating and exercising habits so that obesity and its affects (diabetes, high blood pressure) don’t occur?  Is there a way to prevent performance errors from having negative outcomes on customers (patients, public, etc.)?  There are many avenues in which focus preventative measures.  Which avenue is best, most effective?  Well, that’s the million dollar (billion + dollar question)!

If we did a root cause analysis and decided that shift work is the root cause, then what?  Do we ban shift work?  That’s not likely to happen so what are some things that employers and employees can do?  One administrative control would be to have a work schedule that allows proper rest between shifts and offers adequate time off on a regular basis.  Workers who are allowed to work double, triple shifts are basically set up to fail—physically and mentally.  The human body and mind have limitations—administrators just have to put what is known into the daily work scheduling system.

Another suggestion could be to provide nap times for shift workers in order to prevent fatigue and maintain energy throughout the shift.  Of course, nap time from a production/management point of view would not be looked at fondly.  Nap time would be considered “non-productive” time and very few employers would want to pay their workers for sleeping.  On the flip side, shift workers themselves may not want nap time because it would have the potential to increase the length of their shift and/or reduce their salary.  I can’t imagine that would be met with willingly.  What happens if the worker doesn’t nap during their nap time?  Then why have it at all?  Nap time sounds and looks great at first glance but in practice it becomes a nightmare.

Aside from controlling amount and length of hours worked administratively, what else could be done?  Are we sure that shift work really is the root cause?  What other human factors are involved?  After all, there certainly are a good number of day shift workers who are obese, fatigued and make errors.  Maybe the question should focus on designing the system so that a human doesn’t have an opportunity to make and error; or if an error is made, designing it so that the error doesn’t result in product defects (in production) or harm, injury or death?  In addition to exhausting all human factors and ergonomics in system design employers should also integrate wellness.  Employees need healthy food options at work.  They also could benefit from education on good sleep hygiene, foods that provide/sustain energy, tips on balancing shift work with other family members who are “day people”, etc.

I am just barely scratching the surface on this topic.  There are many more questions to consider and lots of possible solutions which are beyond the purpose of this blog.

My hope is this got you thinking.  Your comments and questions are most welcome!