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Shift Work: Strategies for Coping with Irregular Working Hours

Shift Work Logistics Airplane Night

Transport logistics is one of the economic sectors that rely on shift workers. Supply chains must be maintained 24/7 to ensure they run seamlessly and can supply the population and the economy. Shift work presents employees with special challenges that they can master with proper preparation. Here you can find tips for a healthy approach to shift work.

Why Shift Work Is Necessary

In rescue, health, and social services or in public transport it is beyond obvious: injured people, patients or those in need of care must also be assisted at night and on weekends; and the bus must also run on public holidays, at least to a limited extent, so that the grandchildren can visit their grandmother or the nurse can make it to her own shift. And if no one is baking at the crack of dawn on Sundays, the bread basket will remain empty.

Compared to these fields of work, the need for shift work in logistics may not be immediately apparent, yet it is tremendously important here as well. And this is not only due to the market conditions, which are characterized by high expectations on the part of both private and commercial end customers: nowadays, people are reluctant to wait for deliveries.

Transport Logistics: Part of the Critical Infrastructure

Much more decisive is the aggregate and macrosocial responsibility of the transportation industry: people need food, processing factories need raw materials, machines, or spare parts, and medical, social, official, or cultural institutions depend on a reliable flow of goods. It is transport logisticians who deliver bandages, syringes, highly sensitive medicines – or vaccines. They keep social life running – at all hours. And that does not happen without shift work.

In Germany, for example, the special role of logistics is also recognized by the legislature: because of its significance for the functioning of the community, it is considered a critical service as defined by the relevant law. Critical infrastructures are organizations or facilities whose failure or impairment could result in supply shortages, disruptions to public safety, or other serious consequences to the state.

Shift Work: Advantages and Disadvantages for Employees

Those who work shifts are inevitably disconnected from the “nine-to-five” world that prevails in our society. Organizing family life and other social activities is more demanding than it would be if working at the same pace as others. The free time that one can spend with one’s children or with “normal” workers is limited and thus must be well planned.

The most obvious advantage of shift work is the often higher pay for night or weekend shifts. However, shift workers also gain a degree of flexibility that allows them to shop when the stores are comparatively empty and to get medical appointments more quickly because they can use time slots that are in low demand – or settle matters at a public authority without hassle. A single person may appreciate this more than people with children – like many things in life, this is a matter of individual weighing.

Shift Work and Health

Every human being has a kind of internal biological clock that regulates his or her individual sleep-wake rhythm. It sets the pace for being tired, but also controls heartbeat, metabolism, breathing, and digestion. Humans are diurnal creatures that generally adapt their individual biorhythms to external conditions: During the day one is awake, in the evening one becomes tired.

This is also associated with hormones. For example, with the hormonal messenger melatonin. A high melatonin level results in fatigue, which is why the production of melatonin is suppressed by daylight. Another hormone is leptin, which is released during sleep and curbs appetite. Shift work can mess with hormone release, and in addition to feeling awake and needing to sleep, feelings of hunger and satiety can also get confused.

Research in the sleep lab has shown that noise-disturbed daytime sleep is not only shorter than quiet nighttime sleep, but also has shorter deep sleep phases. But it is the number and duration of deep sleep phases that are crucial for physical recovery during sleep.

German Excerpt from the brochure “Healthy in Each Shift“ by the German health insurance Techniker Krankenkasse

Shift workers who work at night follow a rhythm that runs counter to their own, their hormonal control, and the general rhythm of their environment. Especially as a professional driver, you have to be wide awake at night. This can lead to health problems. That is why shift workers should pay even more attention to their health than other employees.

Shift Work: Tips to Stay Fit and Healthy

The employer must ensure that the negative effects of shift work are minimized as far as possible. But shift workers themselves can also contribute by paying particular attention to certain health aspects. Sleep, nutrition, and exercise play a particularly important role here.

Good Sleep despite Shift Work

A regular sleep rhythm helps us to find restful sleep. For this reason, maintaining the same sleeping times for early, late, and night shifts is beneficial. This allows the body to adapt to the shifts and their routines and the quality of sleep is better.

More tips on how to go to sleep when working in shifts include:

  • sleep in a darkened, cool, well-ventilated bedroom
  • quietness – if the environment is noisy during the day, use earplugs
  • no high-fat food before going to sleep, but also do not go to bed hungry
  • no alcohol before bedtime and no sleeping drugs: both impair recovery through sleep
  • no caffeinated beverages for at least the last four hours before going to bed

Healthy Diet Before, During, and After Work

Digestion does not work as well at night as it does during the day. Heavy, fatty, and carbohydrate-rich food puts additional strain on it and compromises physical performance. Light food before the shift (such as fruit, yogurt, wholewheat bread) and a small meal after the shift are ideal.

To counteract digestion problems, it would actually be best not to eat anything at all during a night shift and instead limit meals to daytime. Of course, being hungry while working or driving at night is no solution either. Several light meals are better than one major meal in this case.

Sport and Exercise as a Balance to the Stress of Shift Work

People who exercise tend to be healthier, happier, and more balanced – this is true for everyone. For people who do shift work, sports and exercise are a welcome way to address the health risks of shift work. Unfortunately, changing work schedules often limit regular participation in club sports. Nevertheless, try to create opportunities for sports activities to compensate for shift work.

You might generally integrate more exercise into your daily routine, for example riding your bike more often. It would be ideal if you could find a sports partner who drives or works the same shift – then you can motivate each other, which is extremely helpful. However you organize it: sufficient exercise increases fitness and mood and prevents cardiovascular disease, obesity, and metabolic disorders.

Maintain Social Contacts

Family or friends: social integration is of particular importance for shift workers. Make sure you have enough social interaction as ”quality time” in your life. Be active in your circle of friends, because your acquaintances cannot always know when you have free time. For night workers who do their job alone – like some professional drivers – it is especially important to be socially integrated to obtain a psychological balance.

Because shift work exposes people to greater stress, labor laws contain specific provisions regulating shift work. The European Working Time Directive, for example, devotes one chapter with five articles to shift work and night work.

According to these regulations, the maximum daily working time for night and shift work is generally eight hours (excluding breaks). There might be deviations from the eight-hour rule for night shifts, especially for on-call duty. But this is rather secondary for night workers in the logistics industry. However, exceptions are also provided for in special operating situations.

When it comes to breaks during shift work, the same rules apply as for regular work: after more than six hours of work, a half-hour break is mandatory. More important for shift work are the rest periods. The general rule is that there must be an uninterrupted rest period of at least eleven hours between two work shifts. This is important when changing from late to early shifts: if one shift ends at 8 p.m., for example, the next one cannot start at 6 a.m. However, as this is sometimes unavoidable, a collective agreement may deviate from the basic provision and reduce the rest period, but this must be compensated.

Night workers are exposed to severe health risks and are therefore entitled to regular occupational health examinations. In case of a health threat, a night worker can request a transfer to a daytime workplace. However, this is only possible if operational requirements do not prevent this.

Conclusion

Shift and night work is associated with challenges for employees – but it is essential for a logistics company like DHL Freight. Our concern as an attentive employer is to create an optimal working environment with as little strain as possible for our employees who work rotating and night shifts. In doing so, we pursue the common goal of playing our part to maintain the critical infrastructure at all times.

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