Organizational and Workplace Changes that Can Help Shift Workers

Improving work conditions is important for a shift worker’s health and well-being, but it’s also key to safety and productivity on the job. Making improvements in the workplace is in the shared interests of both employees and employers.

Work environment. A work environment that is cool and bright helps shift workers stay alert on the job. Exposure to bright light or sunlight (if the sun is still up), especially in the first half of a shift, can help improve alertness. Bright light does not need to be continuous; even 20-30 minutes of bright light at a workstation can help. Workers should be able to stand up, stretch or walk periodically to get some exercise, and avoid long periods sitting in one place. Standing up while answering a phone call or taking brief walks outside or down the hallway can help improve concentration and alertness. Ideally, a break room would accommodate napping while on a break or before a shift starts. If there is food on site, offering healthy options, like vegetables (baby carrots) and fresh fruits, helps keep workers’ energy up and improves their overall health. 

Arranging workloads. If possible, shift workers should plan to do the work that requires the most concentration and skill (and carries the highest safety risks) at the time in their shift when they are most alert. Often for night shift workers, the drowsiest time of the night is roughly 3am – 5am. 

Managing shifts: Night shifts tend to be the hardest on the body, and night workers can quickly accumulate “sleep debt,” or missed hours of sleep. If possible, avoid more than a few night shifts in a row and schedule at least two days off after night shifts. Avoid frequently rotating shifts, and if you are rotating, do so in a forward rotation (morning, evening, night), rather than in the other direction. Certain shift schedules work better for certain people because of natural sleep tendencies, as well as life and family responsibilities; talk to your employer about considering preferences of their shift workers when putting together a schedule.

Getting home safely. If shift workers can take alternate transportation than driving themselves to get home, like taking public transportation or arranging to have someone pick them up at work, that is the safest option. If you are driving home after a shift, plan a safe route home ahead of time and minimize your risk of driving accidents by avoiding routes that require quickly changing lanes or merging onto a busy interstate.