When Night Becomes Day: Rotating Night Shifts

by Dr. Jörg Herbers

For some, this is an attractive source of income. For others, it is a great strain - physically, mentally and organizationally: night work. In 2014, the percentage of the working population which regularly works at night was nearly 9% in Germany (about 3.7 million) according to the German Federal Statistical Office. Among the shift workers in 2016, over half performed night work.

Many machines operate around the clock and must run permanently, in order to produce economically. More and more people have to be served and cared for 24 hours a day. Thus, in many companies, night work is unavoidable and taken for granted.

Detrimental to health

But this demands much from employees, also personally. Human beings are not made to work nights, at least not in the long term. Night work means working against one’s biorhythm and having to accept losses in social life. Most shift workers notice this clearly.

Only a few manage the short-term biorhythm adjustment from day to night work with ease. Most suffer from lack of sleep. Not only during night work but also in the following days, as their bodies are readjusting - as quickly as possible before the next night shift comes around.

A BIBB/BAuA Workers’ Survey in 2012 showed that almost half of those asked had suffered sleeping disorders in the previous 12 months. Other typical symptoms of night work are appetite and digestive disorders, cardiovascular complaints and psycho-vegetative problems. The high level of physical strain is also shown by the fact that the accident risk during the night shift increases by 30%.

Over the course of time, each affected person develops his own strategy to master the night hours, and still do a good job. Unfortunately, a reduction of sleep and the use of stimulants and sleeping pills are some of the tried and tested methods. But these cause subsequent problems. Often, the consequences are only seen years later. Statistically, physical impairments caused by shift work and night work only appear 15 to 20 years later.

Social life also suffers

The physical strain is only one part. Also, the needs of all aspects of life must be fulfilled: work, family, friends and leisure time. For many shift workers, this is not easy, even without night shifts. For people who also repeatedly work nights, this means an even deeper cut to the quality of private life.

The social environment usually lives a different, “regulated” working life. Having time outside of work when most friends and the partner also have free time makes things a lot easier. Someone who is awake when his significant others are sleeping, sleeps through much of what he would like to participate in. In the worst case, night work can lead to social isolation.

Relationships and families are also affected. After all, special consideration is needed if the partner, father or mother is asleep, while everyone else in the domestic environment is attending to their own needs. If there are children in the household, the strain can be enormous for all family members, especially with small children. Even without children, many  relationships are affected if both partners work rotating night shifts. Time together is then often too short.

Companies have a duty of care for their employees

Companies can contribute a lot toward reducing the negative effects of night work. Employees should work at most 2-3 night shifts in a row. There should then follow a sufficiently long rest period of at least 48 hours until the next shift starts.

The previous recommendation was to work a lot of night shifts in succession so that the biorhythm can adjust itself. We now know that changes to the rhythm should be avoided. That is precisely the greatest strain on the body. Therefore, short night shift blocks are recommended.

Most people cope with that better. There are of course exceptions: people who actually prefer to work only at night. This is permitted in some companies, but many do not allow it due to the resulting high health risks.

In Paragraph 6 Section 1, the German Working Time Act requires companies to establish working times for night and shift workers in accordance with the established knowledge of ergonomic science on humane working conditions.

This derives from the company’s obligation to provide for the welfare of the employees. Anyone who works at night in rotating shifts, or works at least 48 nights per year is considered a night worker according to the German Working Time Act. He is afforded a special, legally anchored, health protection. For good reason: a responsible approach to the assignment of night work has a positive effect on the employees’ health. And ultimately, the company benefits through improved productivity.

Special attention should be given to older employees. With increasing age, the strain of night work is more pronounced. The full extent is often only seen well into retirement.

Optimally plan night work with Workforce Management software

There are two prerequisites for finding the best possible solution for all parties involved: firstly, the knowledge of how to best design night work must be available in the company. Secondly, it must be ensured that the findings are actively implemented in the schedule. Above a certain size and complexity, this is only possible with appropriate software. The software should also be able to take into account individual employee wishes with respect to the placement of night work and days-off.

It is then possible to include the social needs of night workers in the schedule. Night work is necessary, but it doesn’t need to be at the expense of health, as long as a few important principles are observed.

How does your company handle night work?

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This article was originally written and published in German and therefore links to sources in the German language. The original article can be read here.



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About the author

  • Dr. Jörg Herbers

    Jörg Herbers is Senior Vice President Workforce Management at Inform GmbH. He specializes in all topics related to staff planning and optimization.

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