Workforce.com

Working 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. and Lovin' Every Minute of It!

July 1, 1997
Bob Grytdahl appreciates the merits of a 12-hour shift. Before he became deputy chief of the investigative division of the Duluth Police Department in Minnesota, he worked four days on and four days off. "What was really great about it is that I had two days to recuperate and do normal chores, such as cutting the grass and painting the garage. By the end of my four days off, I was anxious to come back to work."

James Jones, a technician with Carollton, Kentucky-based Dow-Corning, agrees. He works a 3-day-on, 3-day-off, 12-hour schedule that flips every six days. Prior to that schedule, Jones worked an 8-hour, 7-2 (seven days on, two days off), 7-2, 7-3 schedule that rotated backward-a schedule he detested so much he requested and received a switch to straight days, with a major pay cut.

When asked by ShiftWork Alert, a publication of Circadian Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which schedule he preferred, Jones said: "The old 8-hour schedule was a killer. I had to work seven midnights in a row, and I also ended up working a lot of overtime when people called in sick. I would quit before I would do that again. With 12-hour days, it seems like I'm home more than I'm at work."

Compressed workweeks like the one Jones describes aren't for every organization-nor every employee. But according to West Columbia, Texas-based Shiftwork Benchmarking Institute (SBI), time-zone globalization increasingly is taking hold of corporations and government organizations. With this new mindset, nonstandard working hours are expected, and it's the new way of work. Compressed schedules-some varying the hours each week-are now improving productivity, lifestyle and stress relief for 21 million American shiftworkers. (The 21.4 million figure is based on whether at least half of one's work hours fall between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. By this standard, 79.9 percent of the 106.5 million working Americans work fixed-day schedules. That leaves 20.1 percent or 21.4 million people as shiftworkers.)

Moreover, in an SBI survey conducted in 1994 among 600 North American companies, approximately one-third moved from standard shifts to 12-hour schedules. And the number is expected to increase. Among those companies that made the change:

  • Advanced Micro Devices in Sunnyvale, California, reports greater employee satisfaction since moving to a nonrotating, 12-hour schedule. Some of its married employees are splitting 12s (each taking different 12-hour shifts) to eliminate the high cost of child care.
  • Amax Coal in Gillette, Wyoming, experienced productivity improvement of more than 35 percent and an improvement in material output of 200 percent during the past five years.
  • Amoco Foam Products in Greensboro, North Carolina, put its employees on a 12-hour 2- and 3-day schedule.
  • Campbell County Hospital in Gillette, Wyoming, is one of many hospitals at which employees successfully work multiple shift configurations, including a 12-hour schedule.

Regardless of which 12-hour configuration a company selects, HR must ensure employees' buy-in. Without education and including employees in the planning process-compressed workweek schedules are doomed for failure. Learn from those who've paved the way. Remember that the schedule is less important than how it's selected and implemented.

Work scheduling is a means of empowerment.
Buzzwords such as participation, autonomy and independence are easy to embrace conceptually. In fact, most managers today know that employees want a voice in key decisions affecting them.

The compressed workweek, therefore, has become an increasingly popular form of alternative work scheduling. It reallocates employees' time by condensing the total hours in the traditional workweek into fewer days (5 into 4 1/2, 5 into 4, 10 into 9, or 5 into 3). Total hours in compressed systems are generally held constant, with employees simply working more hours in each full day and fewer days per week or biweekly period.

Interest in the compressed workweek has, in part, been driven by the belief that a schedule that's more attractive to employees will motivate more effective employee behavior and promote greater job satisfaction.

Emplyers experienced with compressed workweeks cite many benefits, such as decreased absenteeism.

A basic HR concern, however, is greater employee fatigue that causes a drain on psychological and physical energy, creativity, alertness and attention to safety. On the other hand, compressed work schedules could give employees larger blocks of time away from work. They would then be able to use these blocks for personal business and leisure-time activities. The reduced stress from the lessened nonwork demands on time coupled with the increased life satisfaction from recreational activities are benefits expected to spill over into the work domain.

Employers that are experienced with compressed workweeks also cite many company benefits: favorable worker attitudes; decreased absenteeism; greater utilization of existing equipment, tools and buildings; greater flexibility in meeting customer service; and wage incentives for working less-desirable shifts.

Who are today's shiftworkers? According to ShiftWork Alert, most are disproportionately young, single and male. Younger people are more likely than older people to be shiftworkers. Approximately 24 percent of people age 18 to 29 work night or evening shifts, compared with 13.8 percent of those 30 to 44 and 12 percent of those 45 and older. Unfortunately, no governmental agency tracks and monitors U.S. shiftworkers, so recent statistics aren't available. But most shiftworkers tend to be employed in the protective-service industries (police, firefighters), food service, health assessment and treating occupations, transportation and moving industries.

A hybrid schedule works for one company.
The James River Paper Co.'s paper manufacturing and converting facility in Ashland, Wisconsin, addressed the downside of shiftwork with the positive aspects of compressed workweeks. HR permitted two groups of production employees to start working a schedule that combined their forward-rotating shiftwork schedule with the compressed schedule-thereby creating a hybrid 12-hour, 8-day workweek (compressed shiftwork schedule, with four days on and four days off). It also compared this group with a similar group of production employees working the traditional 8-hour shiftwork schedule.

What James River discovered is that those employees working the compressed week, shiftwork schedule reported many positive effects. They were more satisfied with their hours of work, as well as with their leisure time. They also perceived that the alternative work schedule produced a favorable effect on their personal, social and family lives. Employees reported less physiological and psychological symptoms of stress than did the workers on the traditional shiftwork schedule. Despite working an additional four hours per shift under the compressed work schedule, workers didn't indicate that either the stress or fatigue increased.

One major concern for HR professionals is whether the positive effects of any organizational change effort will be sustained or will fade after a short period of time.

To test the long-term effectiveness of implementing compressed work schedules, part of the examination of the James River work schedule included gathering data from two groups of employees who had been using the compressed shiftwork schedule for 12 months and 24 months, respectively. No evidence indicated that the positive effects deteriorated. In fact, there were virtually no differences between the two 12-hour, 8-day compressed shiftwork schedule groups in terms of their experienced levels of stress, organizational commitment, job satisfaction, leisure time satisfaction and attitudes toward the impact on one's family and social life.

Compressed workweeks aren't for everybody.
In spite of positive results experienced by James River, HR managers should also be aware that within a given organization, some jobs aren't conducive to compressed workweeks. At the Duluth Police Department, for example, only uniformed patrol officers responding to 911 calls are allowed to work compressed workweeks, says Grytdahl. The department employs 140 police officers and 25 nonsworn staff-mainly in clerical positions. Its division of 40 investigators, however, aren't scheduled for compressed workweeks.

Police officers who respond to 911 calls are better suited to 12-hour shifts. Their jobs, says Grytdahl, don't require long-term continuity. They can move from one 911 call to another without having to know the follow-up details of a particular case. The benefits, he says, include the fact that officers return to work physically and mentally rested. "With police work, it's the mental rest that's most appreciated."

But aren't the 12-hour shifts exhausting? Yes. According to Martin Moore-Ede, founder and president of Circadian Technologies, one's body is designed to sleep at night, making night work a challenge. Virtually all of one's bodily functions have circadian rhythms, and these are controlled by the biological clock in the brain. This clock, in turn, is influenced by sunlight and darkness. "Understanding how the body works, therefore, is a first step toward successfully coping with shiftwork," he says.

Virtually all one's bodily functions have circadian rhythems controlled by the biological clock in the brain

Besides some fatigue, Grytdahl observes other downsides. Because the officers are gone so much (they work 4-day shifts), very often they return to work and are out of the loop. "In the policing field, officers hear and see all kinds of things all the time. So when they're off for four days, there's so much that's gone on, they don't have the time to catch up as much as they need to." When the department switched schedules, the organization didn't pick up the slack. Supervisors, he says, are still trying to create a mechanism by which officers can fit back into the groove. "We're still working on that."

But working such shifts is an improvement over the Duluth Police Department's previously disruptive, 8-hour rotating shifts. "I remember working 10 years on rotating 7-day, 8-hour shifts. It's a horrendous thought to ever go back to that," says Grytdahl.

In spite of some drawbacks, the Duluth Police Department is reaping benefits from the new schedule. Once the patrol officers went on 12-hour shifts, others went on 10-hour compressed workweeks. The new schedules gave the department other scheduling options. Today, the department provides a range of flextimes with the approval of one's supervisor. "We went from mechanically counting days off to counting number of hours worked," Grytdahl says, cautioning HR to see when it's beneficial and when it's not. In addition, he warns there could be some resistance.

Overcome resistance by participatory management.
Moore-Ede offers some wise advice for HR dealing with naysayers. Unions often are hesitant to accept a 12-hour work schedule even when properly implemented 8-to-12 conversions have employee approval ratings of 80 percent or more. There's unquestionably a negative history associated with 12-hour shifts (accidents, fatigue, low morale). And in many cases, it was only through the efforts of unions that certain practices were outlawed.

But the state of science and technology has changed. It's now possible to develop a 12-hour shift schedule without the substantial health-and-safety costs. "The best strategy for getting buy-in is an open, honest education process and a participative decision-making process," he says.

In handling resistant employees, Moore-Ede says that if there's a lot of resistance at the end of the change process, the battle is lost. The time to address resistance is when developing the policy. Companies switching schedules should create an employee-management task force or a union-management task force to oversee the new schedule design and the implementation process. "Successful schedule conversions have 75 percent or more of the employees bought in before the policy is created," he says.

HR should be prepared to spend time helping resistant employees adjust. Aversion to change is natural, and some who resist will come around with time. Others may not. So HR will have to watch out for the "one bad apple" effect and expect that a temporary increase in turnover may be one of the costs of making the conversion. "I can't emphasize enough the critical importance of an honest and open decision-making process," says Moore-Ede.

Workforce, July 1997, Vol. 76, No. 7, pp. 30-36.