in the spotlight

How do you keep shift workers productive and employable over the long term?

11 January 2018 • 4 min reading time

After years of working shifts, people are at great risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and sleeping problems. Together with a number of companies, TNO is developing effective, customized interventions to safeguard workers’ long-term productiveness and employability.

Shift work, on-call work, night work, work in the healthcare sector, and working for the police or fire brigade all fall under the umbrella term of ‘shift work’. In addition to long-term effects, such as developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and sleep problems, disruption of the biological clock or of the circadian (day-night) rhythm can reduce alertness at night. Combined with lack of sleep, this can result in a greater risk of accidents at work or in the car on the way home from work. In a 2015 advisory report entitled ‘Shiftwork and health risks: possibilities for prevention’, the Health Council of the Netherlands concluded that there are few effective interventions available.

People differ

“That’s true, as past studies have focused mainly on shift work at group level”, says technical business expert Hardy van de Ven. He works at TNO’s ‘Sustainable Productivity and Employability’ (SPE) department. “Everyone responds differently to a general group intervention. People differ, in terms of age and of lifestyle. For instance, some are ‘morning people’, while others are ‘evening people’. Morning people find night shifts more difficult than evening people, and need more time to recover.”

“Factors, such as ‘being a morning person or an evening person’, are better able to account for individual differences in sleep and recovery requirements than the person’s age”

Older people - younger people

Dr Van de Ven obtained his PhD from the University of Groningen in mid-October 2017, for a study into older shift workers. It had always been thought that, as people get older, they find working in shifts increasingly burdensome. However, Hardy’s research showed that shift work is no more difficult for older people than it is for young people. “Other factors, such as ‘being a morning person or an evening person’, are better able to account for individual differences in sleep and recovery requirements than a person’s age.” Movement scientist, Alwin van Drongelen (one of Hardy’s colleagues in the SPE department) adds “Older employees will increasingly be required to work during the night. It is becoming more and more difficult to maintain the workforce at full strength. For that reason, all kinds of measures to make life easier for older workers will become largely unsustainable.”

Intervention options

TNO has years of experience in developing new interventions to keep employees (including the older ones) productive and employable for their company or organization over the long term. There are four intervention options: tackle the problem at source, working environment, rosters and lifestyle. Together with a company, TNO can develop customized interventions for all four options, targeting individual and company characteristics. Hardy van de Ven’s initial advice to companies is ‘tackle the problem at source’. “Take a critical look at your business processes. Is shift work really necessary? If so, what can you do to keep the number of night shifts and early morning shifts to a minimum? This is the best way to avoid the entire shift work problem, if not the easiest.”

“There are four intervention options: tackle the problem at source, working environment, rosters and lifestyle”

Power naps

At Tata Steel in IJmuiden, TNO recently launched a project aimed at remedying the short-term effects of shift work. “We first examine the types of work that people do at night”, says Dr Van Drongelen. “Next, we explore the potential of various interventions to keep people alert for as long as possible. For instance, you can introduce personalized power naps. After one of these night-time naps, you are wide-awake and alert again. This approach is already widely used in aviation. However, the nature of this intervention means that it is not easily implemented in other sectors. For instance, sleeping facilities will need to be installed.”

Job switching

“Another concept is job switching. People cannot spend the whole night staring at a monitor. One option is to get people to perform a more relaxing task, give them a chance to move around, or encourage them to play a game. This switch can be automated, or triggered by an app. Also, people have to eat at sometime during the night. But what and when? TNO also has the necessary expertise to provide personalized nutritional advice. Avoid greasy or carbohydrate-rich snacks, for example. You could offer people individual support at night, by means of a personalized app. You can also make adjustments to the working environment, depending on the target group’s wishes and needs.”

“With every intervention it is important to involve the employee in question, right from the start. Switching working hours can have a considerable impact on someone’s social life”

Ergonomic roster

One important intervention option is the development of a personalized ergonomic roster, aimed at preventing health complaints as much as possible. One of the criteria for a roster of this type would be: make allowance for the fact that a given individual is a morning person or an evening person. Limit the number of consecutive identical shifts. Plan the roster forwards in time, in other words ‘morning-afternoon-night’ rather than the other way around ‘night-afternoon-morning’. Dr Van de Ven points out that “With every intervention – even the one involving a new roster – it is important to get the employee involved, right from the start. This will help to boost their job satisfaction. Switching working hours can have a considerable impact on someone’s social life. In this way, you can avoid mistrust and resistance. After all, interventions are only effective if they work and if they are actually used.”

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