3 creative solutions for shift management

Small businesses in many industries need to rely on shift work to schedule employees across regular work hours and sometimes into the night. In fact, around one-fifth of the global workforce does some form of shift work. In the U.S., this amounts to around 15 million workers. But although shift work is necessary for many businesses, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to manage.

One of the biggest challenges about shift management is it’s another task that needs ongoing maintenance. Even if you’ve set your team’s schedule of alternating shifts for the day, night, week, or month, you can’t assume that the job is completed.

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Though you might wish otherwise, shifts aren’t set in stone; because you’re dealing with human beings, life will intervene. An employee will call out sick two hours before their planned shift, someone will need to take unexpected time off for family reasons, or a worker may get a flat tire on the way to work and need a replacement. That’s why scheduling — and rescheduling — shifts can become very time-consuming for managers, particularly in small businesses where everyone is overstretched.

Knowing the obstacles, you can improve the process and get better results with a few creative approaches to shift management.

Be proactive about personal issues

You don’t have a crystal ball to tell when staff members will need to change their shift. But if you make an effort to know something about the important issues that each employee is dealing with outside of work, you may be able to anticipate some scheduling issues to avoid replacement shifts.

If you notice a pattern of switching by a particular employee, ask if there’s a way to work better with his or her schedule in relation to personal commitments. For example, shift workers who have family care-taking responsibilities during the day might experience less scheduling variability if offered evening shifts rather than afternoon. People with children in school might fare better in the morning, leaving their later day free to attend their child’s after-school events. Each situation will vary, but if you let your team know that you care about their other priorities, you may be rewarded with fewer last-minute call outs.

Avoid rotating shifts

The vast majority of shift workers prefer to work a fixed schedule for their shifts rather than a rotating schedule. The difference is that the crew that works fixed shifts sticks with a regular schedule — for example, always in the morning, always in the afternoon, or always in the evening. Rotating shift workers alternate which shift they work, completing their shifts at different times of the day or night.

There are reasons why employees opt out of rotating schedules when they can. Workers on rotating shifts not only have higher levels of fatigue from being short on sleep, but also poorer safety records and worse job performance. To avoid these serious problems, give employees at your business dependable fixed shifts with time off after five days on the job.

Help employees adapt physically to shift work

There are steps you can take as an employer to make shift work less problematic for your employees, which may in turn improve your experience of shift management. By understanding the unique challenges that your employees may face on different shifts, you can provide helpful information and resources that can help boost their health and well-being. In turn, they may offer better reliability and availability to stick to their scheduled hours.

The night shift, in particular, has been linked with negative health consequences resulting from what the American Psychological Association terms “circadian misalignment.” When people work against the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle, it can cause problems that go far beyond fatigue to include sleep disorders, decreased cognitive abilities, and mood issues. But there are research-based solutions that workers can use to try to reduce these effects and protect their health, such as:

  • Wearing dark glasses after completing their night shift to avoid light cues that will keep them from sleeping
  • Keeping the same sleep schedule every day, including days off, to align the body with the shift schedule
  • Shifting night workers’ circadian clock with a compromise approach developed by Charmane Eastman at Rush University: going to bed as late as possible on days off, being exposed to intermittent bright light on working days, wearing sunglasses after their shift, and sleeping as soon as possible. This minimizes the difference between employees’ sleeping patterns on their night shift days and days off, improving their sleep quality.

By taking an interest in your employees’ personal commitments, avoiding rotating shifts, and sharing proven tips to help workers counteract the potentially negative effects of shift work, you’ll have happier, more well-rested employees who can help you get the job done.

Bonus: Read about how new age bookstore owner Barbara Criswell uses Womply to align staff hours to her business’s busiest sales days.


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