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A Safe Approach to Managing Swing and Night Shift Workers

Shift workers and night workers are often tired and sleep poorly as a result of their abnormal work schedules.

Workers who are tired often find it hard to concentrate and they are more apt to make errors or cause accidents as a result of being tired or inattentive, putting not only the worker at risk but also co-workers and the public that may come in contact with your worker.

About 5% of American adults work in the evening (or the swing shift), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Permanent night workers and workers with irregular schedules make up another 4%. Still another 4% are rotating shift workers. Complicating matters is that some companies will switch employees’ schedules, having them work nights for a week or two and then switching them to a day or swing shift.

Besides the short-term effects of shift work or night work, there can be other repercussions for workers, such as digestive problems (including stomach ulcers and constipation) and heart disease. It can also take a toll on personal relationships, while the ramping up period after a vacation, when they revert to a normal schedule, can also take its toll.

For some companies running multiple shifts is unavoidable in order to keep the production line or services going, and while worker fatigue cannot be completely eliminated there are measures that an employer can take to keep reduce the adverse effects of these shifts.

According to the booklet Plain Language about Shiftwork, by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there are a number of measures employers can implement to reduce the ill effects of shift work, while maximizing the health and safety of their personnel.

  • Consider alternatives to permanent night shift: One problem that researchers have found is that most night shift workers never get used to working at night, largely because they revert to a daytime schedule on their days off so that they can spend time with friends and family. And since night shifts typically have fewer workers around those that are toiling at night, may start feeling isolated or disaffected – not part of the “team.”
  • Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum: Some researchers suggest that only 2 to 4 nights in a row should be worked before a couple of days off. This keeps circadian rhythms from being overly disturbed and limits sleep loss.
  • Avoid quick shift changes. Switching an employee from morning to night duty with only an 8-hour break doesn’t leave enough time for rest and could put the employee at danger of having an accident at work. You should make the switch only after a 24-hour break, according to NIOSH.
  • Avoid long shifts and overtime if possible. More than eight hours at work can fatigue a worker already working the swing or night shift. It allows less time to rest. If you do require some overtime, avoid having staff work extra hours for more than three days in a row.
  • Vary shift lengths depending on work. Try adjusting shift length to the workload. Heavy physical or mental work or monotonous work is especially difficult at night. Maybe night shifts could be shorter. If possible, assign workers doing heavy work to shorter shifts and lighter work to longer shifts.
  • More breaks? Sometimes the standard lunch and coffee break every two hours is not enough to recover from fatigue. Consider the example of card dealers in casinos, who typically get breaks of 10 to 15 minutes every hour because their jobs require so much concentration. If their concentration is low, it is easier for a player to cheat at cards, and the casino will lose money. While your employees may not be looking out for cheats, their ability to concentrate is likely equally as important to your company’s bottom line.
  • Keep the schedule regular and predictable. Regularly scheduled work results in regularly scheduled rest.


One issue you need to consider is that everyone has natural circadian rhythms, which dictate when we are at our peak performance – for most people their peak performance levels are late morning and afternoons. Some people, like fisherman may be “morning people” who are most productive in the early hours of the day, while musicians, for example, may hit their peak circadian rhythms in the evening, when most other people are winding down.

Staff that work night shifts also need to try to get the right amount of sleep. They should experiment with when they go to bed after a night shift to find out when they sleep mostly soundly. It is a good idea to go to bed as early as possible after the night shift in order to maximize sleep. A second sleep could also be taken in the afternoon to get ready for the night shift. Ideally they should also exercise regularly and eat a proper diet.

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