As all business owners know, the job never really ends. There’s always something you need to take care of, a call you need to answer, an email you need to write; but there’s also a limit to how productive you can be without breaks or downtime. Long shifts and aggressive schedules don’t just lead to sleep deprivation and coffee habits, though; long shifts can hurt your business through increased insurance costs, overtime wages, more screw-ups on the job site, lower employee satisfaction, and higher turnover.
Shifts tend to be longer for service businesses than in other industries due to the increased drive times and the variability between individual jobs. You won’t be able to limit every day to an optimum shift length, but there’s a lot you can do to lessen the impact of chronic over-working. If you and your employees are consistently pulling 10+ hour shifts, chances are you have either a scheduling issue, or there’s something wrong with your worksite management. In this article, we’re going to outline the risks of extended shifts and offer some solutions to common issues.
The History of Shift Work
The 40 hour work week is a relatively recent invention, and it came into existence as a reaction to working conditions instead of as solution to productivity issues. Prior to legislation put in place in the nineteenth century, there was no daily or weekly limit on hours. Limiting work to just twelve hours a day was considered a victory in France in 1848, and the eight hour day didn’t become the norm in the United States until the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted in 1937.
In recent times the topic of productivity and “optimum shift lengths” has become increasingly popular, and some countries have even instituted new employment standards targeting different shift lengths. Most of this has been focused on office employees and the demands of “intellectual labor” such as computer programming, ignoring the industries that don’t conform to the 9-to-5 model.
Service businesses don’t face the issues of overnight work typically found in manufacturing environments. Instead, they’re faced with a mixture of workplace issues found in both the trucking and construction industries. Service business employees spend hours on the road, often during high-risk periods, operate potentially dangerous tools and equipment, and work under tight deadlines. A bad combination.
The Dangers of Long Shifts
Long shifts and little sleep can lead to more than a caffeine addiction. Chronic stress can have deleterious effects on your health, both mentally and physically, and those effects can be permanent. When combined with sleep deprivation, as is common on large jobs, the end result can be disastrous.
When you’re on the jobsite all day (and into the night), it can have serious results. Confusion, fatigue, dizziness, blurred vision, impaired judgement and more are common. Employees who work overtime are 61% more likely to be injured due to workplace hazards, and experience long-term cardiovascular risks. Studies on the impact of long shifts for hospital workers have found direct correlations between shift length and burnout, leading to higher turnover rates and decreased workplace satisfaction.
In studies performed on EMS drivers, it’s been found that sleep deprivation and long shifts produce cognitive effects similar to alcohol consumption. Long shifts lead to impaired judgement, limited ability to predict future events, and poor emotional control, which can be disastrous both on the road and at the worksite.
How It Costs You Money
For employers who don’t care about turnover and employee satisfaction, ignoring the costs of long shifts is easy; until it shows up on the balance sheet. Increased healthcare utilization translates into higher insurance rates, more employee downtime, more overtime, and higher turnover. More accidents on the road and at the jobsite can lead to equipment replacement, botched projects, and even refunded invoices in response to employee mistakes. Even when you pass your employee’s insurance costs onto them, you’re on the hook for the results.
Beyond these directly tangible costs, having long shifts and low employee satisfaction can make finding good employees harder. Service contractors do hard work, and finding good employees is hard even when you treat them well. Bad shift management only compounds those issues, and the financial impact of hiring poor employees can be large. When you’re not attracting good workers and you’re forced to compromise your hiring process, you leave yourself open to negative worker-client interactions, worksite theft, accidents, and more.
There’s obviously a balancing point between maximum productivity and minimum viable work capacity. It might not be at the oft-targeted 40-hour week, but there’s a definite difference between 60 hours of good work and 80 hours of bad scheduling.
Fixing Long Shifts
In the current economic climate, workforce expansion is rarely the perfect answer to overworked employees. New employees come with their own overhead and their own risk impact, which cuts directly into your margin when you’re dividing your existing load among more people.
Diagnosing your scheduling system is a good first step, as it will help you identify scheduling patterns that lead to longer shifts or unintentional doubles. By using a digital scheduling and/or dispatching tool, you should be able to reduce excessive transport times between jobs and track which employees are working longer hours than usual. If nothing else, this can help you establish an intelligent baseline for how much your workers are currently spending on the job, helping you identify what solutions will be most effective for you in the long-run.
The second step is to be proactive with time off requests and holidays to curb unexpected absences. Start the conversation early, encourage your workforce to work together, and get the details in writing. Pay attention to the season, and consider how offering holiday pay could help you reduce risk. Having clear systems in place will mitigate the issues that a round of strep throat or similar issues might create.
When scheduling issues pop up mid-shift, clear communication protocols are key. You can’t fix every issue with dispatching, but it can go a long way toward keeping issues from snowballing across the week. If your employees aren’t comfortable enough in their positions to call in when work gets backed up, small problems can turn catastrophic when your entire calendar is thrown off-balance. It’s easier to rely on on-call employees when they can anticipate when and where they’ll be called in, and they’ll be more effective when your on-site employees are comfortable with the process.
The solutions you use depend on the kind of business you run, but as long as you’re aware of the effects of (and possible solutions for) long shifts you should be able to mitigate some of the impact it’ll have on your workforce. There is no perfect solution, and there’s a fair chance you’ll find yourself in a position where you’ll need more workers on shift than you have. But as long as you put employee health first and understand how doing so can save you money in the long run, you’ll stand out from the competition.