A shift worker is anyone who follows a work schedule that is outside of the typical "9 to 5" business day. In the past few decades the United States has become increasingly dependent upon shift workers to meet the demands of globalization and our 24-hour society. From a competitive standpoint, shift work is an excellent way to increase production and customer service without major increases in infrastructure. According to the bureau of labor statistics, millions of Americans are considered shift workers, including doctors and nurses, pilots, bridge-builders, police officers, customer service representatives and commercial drivers.
However, while shift work does create potential productivity advantages, it also has many inherent risks. Some of the most serious and persistent problems shift workers face are frequent sleep disturbance and associated excessive sleepiness. Sleepiness/fatigue in the work place can lead to poor concentration, absenteeism, accidents, errors, injuries, and fatalities. The issue becomes more alarming when you consider that shift workers are often employed in the most dangerous of jobs, such as firefighting, emergency medical services, law enforcement and security. Managers and policy makers who are responsible for writing and enforcing rules regarding employee work hours must address the specific issues of a 24-hour work force in order to succeed and benefit from such a labor force. Although addressing these issues may require some investment up front for training and other measures, the bottom line is that improved sleep in workers may lead to improved productivity. In fact, to ignore the needs of the shift worker is reckless and irresponsible when you consider that billions of dollars in yearly costs, thousands of deaths, and some of the most notorious of modern catastrophes such as the failure of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the crash of the Exxon Valdez have been attributed to human fatigue.
According to the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders, shift workers are at increased risk for a variety of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases. Whether this is related to the fact that shift workers are awake and active during the night hours or because they tend to get fewer hours of sleep overall than traditional workers is not known. Also, shift workers often miss out on important family and social events due to their work schedules. Most managers recognize that understanding and addressing these issues improves employee morale, performance, safety and health, and can dramatically improve the bottom line of the company.