When Bayer Materials Science unveiled a lifestyle training program in 2004, it didn’t start with an edict from top management that trickled down to the shop floor. Instead, a cadre of forward-thinking employees at its Baytown, Texas, plant, near Galveston, suggested the training to address a rise in the number of shift workers experiencing divorce and other painful family problems.
The Baytown plant, part of Germany’s Bayer Group, makes coatings, adhesives and other base compounds that are sold to manufacturers, which then reformulate them for use in finished products. More than 1,500 employees work the plant’s four shifts, including about 400 people who work rotating schedules.
The training does not make thorny personal issues suddenly vanish, but Bayer officials say it has given shift workers tools to cope with them. Among the resources provided in the program are tips for improved sleep, proper nutrition, and balancing work and family obligations.
“You can’t always make your daughter’s recitals or your son’s ballgames. But there are strategies to use for keeping your work and personal lives in proper balance,” says Zeb LeVasseur Jr., who heads Bayer’s human resources function in Baytown and helped develop the program.
Bayer’s training is based on scientific research by Circadian, a Stoneham, Massachusetts-based consulting firm, and other experts into the physiological and emotional toll of shift work. Although not mandatory, Bayer tries to induce workers to participate in the lifestyle training by treating it as paid time.
Some of Bayer’s employees double as instructors, delivering the workshops in addition to working their regular shifts. In fact, the workshops are conducted exclusively by employees who either currently work an irregular shift or have done so extensively, including LeVasseur. The spouses and other family members of shift workers also are asked to participate.
“We realize that not only is shift work affecting employees, but also their families,” LeVasseur says.
Shift work generally refers to nonstandard schedules—anything other than the typical 9-to-5 workday. It can involve evenings, nights, weekends, rotating shifts, or some combination. In particular, these shifts occur when most of the working world is fast asleep or relaxing.
Shift work has been an integral part of U.S. workplaces since the Industrial Revolution, particularly the advent of the assembly line by automaker Henry Ford. Yet even in the modern global economy, shift workers constitute an important element of the workforce for organizations with round-the-clock operations. Nearly 15 million Americans work irregular schedules, including rotating shifts and evening or night shifts, according to statistics from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Running multiple shifts enables companies to improve their output and better meet fluctuating customer deadlines. At the same time, many shift workers prefer the schedule and the added pay that sometimes comes with it.
As advantageous as it can be for both sides, though, shift work remains fraught with peril. Some employees struggle to adjust to the graveyard and other shifts that wreak havoc on the body’s natural rhythm and cut into time spent with families.
“Humans are not designed to operate around the clock. We are fundamentally hard-wired to be day creatures,” says Bill Sirois, a vice president with Circadian, which designs lifestyle training for Bayer and other companies with extended hours.
In fact, experts say that compared with their day-working counterparts, shift workers face increased risks of certain health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, includes overnight shift work on its list of probable cancer-causing agents. The finding is based on research showing that people with increased exposure to artificial light, such as those working nights, produce lower levels of melatonin in their bodies. Melatonin is a hormone linked with suppression of cancer-causing tumors.
Another devastating statistic: Risk of divorce increases nearly 60 percent when one of the spouses does shift work, Sirois says. That’s based on a landmark study conducted two decades ago by sociologists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It concluded that shift work raised the likelihood of divorce from 7 percent to 11 percent, representing an increased risk of 57 percent.
When their shift workers suffer from health and personal issues, companies feel the impact. Decreased productivity, dwindling morale, higher absenteeism and health care costs, increased turnover and spikes in production errors are common. The Commonwealth Fund, a think tank in New York, estimates that health-related employee absences cost U.S. companies $260 billion in economic output annually. That figure includes productivity drops of workers who, while present for work, are distracted by concerns over family and personal matters, according to a report the group published in 2005.
A Circadian survey involving 400 extended-hours operations found that facilities offering lifestyle-type training experience average turnover of 7.4 percent, compared with 11.7 percent for those that don’t offer it. Turnover falls to 6.2 percent among organizations that invite families to participate in the training sessions. Getting family members involved is important, Circadian’s Sirois says, because it helps reinforce any lifestyle adjustments that shift workers need to make.
But lifestyle training for employees is not yet a mainstream activity. Circadian say 22 percent of companies offer such programs, compared with 78 percent that have nothing in place. Of those that do provide it, only 5 percent include family members.
Lifestyle training is similar to employee assistance programs, or EAPs. But whereas EAPs take a reactive approach to employee problems, lifestyle training attempts to nip those problems in the bud.
“Companies today use highly sophisticated machinery and equipment. To abuse it is to invite premature failure. We tell companies to apply that thinking to their most important asset: their employees,” Sirois says.
Training people how to adapt to shift work sounds laudable, but companies may have it backward, says Susan J. Lambert, a University of Chicago professor who studies workforce management practices. On the one hand, Lambert says it is encouraging that companies with extended hours recognize the social isolation and other risks faced by shift workers and their families.
“But instead of changing the conditions at work, they’re trying to reduce that negative impact by getting their workers to change,” Lambert says.
Nevertheless, other companies with extended hours are taking similar approaches to help employees juggle their job and family obligations. For instance, Toronto-based steel maker Dofasco Inc. operates a recreation complex designed for use by employees and their families. The complex includes baseball diamonds, soccer and football fields, a driving range, two hockey rinks, and facilities for tennis, basketball, volleyball and other sports.
“We try to promote work/life balance in a very active way by having things easily accessible to employees and by including their families,” says Krystyna S. McLennan, a human resources manager.
Dofasco is a subsidiary of ArcelorMittal, a large steel producer based in Luxembourg. ArcelorMittal acquired Dofasco in 2006. Although it doesn’t use the term “lifestyle training,” Dofasco does hold an annual health fair in which experts provide tips on eating well, exercise programs, caring for elderly parents, and safety in the home.
In addition, McLennan says departments conduct smaller one-day events tailored to the specific needs of their specific workforce. At those events, human resources professionals schedule speakers and other activities to educate employees about such things as identity theft, work/life balance, handling stress, financial management and even self-defense and dealing with potential violence at work.
Perhaps the biggest impact of lifestyle training is reduced turnover. Sirois says this was a major concern for companies during the “war for talent” heyday. The recession has diminished those concerns somewhat. “But turnover is still one big factor, and will continue to increase in importance as the economy begins to recover,” Sirois says
Bayer’s employee-driven initiative is gaining popularity as shift workers learn how it can help, LeVasseur says. In addition, it gives Bayer a potential edge when wooing top recruits.
Says LeVasseur: “It’s definitely the right thing to do. The only regret we have is that we didn’t do it sooner.”
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