Making the shift:12-hour vs. 8-hour

Issue 4 and Volume 101.

Making the shift:12-hour vs. 8-hour

By Steve Mardon,

Circadian Information

Workers and managers in 24-hour operations increasingly prefer 12-hour shifts, but making the transition from 8-hour shifts requires careful planning

Dave Nash, a Circadian Technologies scheduling consultant, has advised companies on scheduling issues since the 1970s. He believes that in 15 years, more 24-hour companies will be on 12-hour shifts (12s) than eight-hour ones (8s). “Because of the overwhelming benefits of 12s for both management and employees,” Nash said, “it just won`t make good business sense for a company to stay with 8s, except in cases where there are exceptional demographic, environmental or ergonomic constraints.”

The case for 12s

What are the overwhelming benefits to which Nash refers? The most significant one is that the number of daily shift turnovers drops from three to two, which often leads to safety improvements and increased production.

This is because many accidents and operating errors occur as a result of miscommunication during shift turnovers. Productivity also may go up on 12s, because fewer turnovers means less production downtime.

A related benefit is that when one shift is eliminated, the day crew turns the plant over to the night crew, and then the night crew turns the plant back to the day crew. Because employees usually turn over and pick up work from the same fellow workers each day, they are motivated to identify and fix problems and communicate with the opposite shift.

On 8s, there`s a tendency to pass the buck to the next shift. The day-shift worker can leave a problem for the evening shift, knowing that when he returns in the morning, the problem may have been addressed on the evening shift or the night shift. On 12s, people are more likely to want to hand over their work environment in the same condition they received it.

Finally, workers spend less time getting into the work groove. It`s easy for workers on an eight-hour shift to shut down after seven hours, and it also takes most people an hour or so to gear up to work. By going from 8s to 12s, it reduces this productivity disruption from six hours a day to four.

While these factors are considered the biggest advantages of 12s, companies that have converted may also experience one or more of the following benefits:

z reduced absenteeism and un scheduled overtime,

z lower turnover/improved morale,

z higher project completion rates and

z more dedicated employees.

Reduced absenteeism and unscheduled overtime

Because people on 12s have twice as many days off as people on 8s (182 vs. 91), there are fewer conflicts with personal and family obligations–taking time off for a doctor`s ap point ment or to go fishing–that may promote absenteeism. In addition, shiftworkers are less likely to call in sick if they know that, by doing so, they use 12 hours of leave time and force someone else to get called in on a day off for 12 hours of relief.

Lower turnover/improved morale

In cases where shiftworkers have a say in selecting the schedule, the majority become strong supporters of 12s. This is generally because they like having additional days off and because they find it easier to develop regular sleeping habits. Satisfied workers are more productive and less likely to request transfers to other plants or to change occupations altogether.

Higher project completion rates

During 12s, long projects, including extended maintenance tasks, are more likely to be finished. Similarly, the amount of overtime needed to complete a critical project may be reduced.

More dedicated employees

On 12-hour schedules in which employees work three or four consecutive days or nights, shiftworkers tend to concentrate on their jobs. Because employees have little time left for anything besides working, sleeping, eating and commuting and know they have several days off coming up afterward, they are less likely to drink excessively or get involved in physically demanding activities on work days.

While the definitive long-term study on 12s has yet to be conducted, a growing body of laboratory and worksite research has found that performance and safety do not suffer on 12s.

Some reasons to stay with 8s

Although companies that convert to 12s rarely regret making the change, 12s are not appropriate for every 24-hour company. Due to demographic factors or ergonomic conditions, it may be a mistake in some cases to relinquish the eight-hour schedule.

Demographic factors

Companies with aging or largely female workforces may have difficulty converting to 12s. Older workers who have been on 8s for decades sometimes have a hard time adjusting to 12s. And while there`s no reason women can`t capably work 12s, women often bear a disproportionate responsibility for child care and other household responsibilities and may find it easier to balance work and family needs on 8s.

Environmental and

ergonomic conditions

Certain work environments are so physically demanding that 12s are too stressful for workers. An area where the temperature rises to more than 110 F or a task that requires constant heavy lifting may not be a good candidate for conversion to 12s, although some companies with these conditions have received positive results with schedules that combine 8s and 12s. In some situations, it is possible to change the workplace to make it more suitable for 12s. For example, a company might allow workers who formerly stood for an entire eight-hour shift to work while sitting.

The Golden Rule:

Involve employees

Switching from 8s to 12s literally changes the lives of workers. Because schedules have such far-reaching effects on both company and workers, management should heed the “Golden Rule” of scheduling selection–the schedule chosen is less important than how it is selected and implemented. A related corollary is equally important: No single 12-hour schedule is ideal for every company.

By far the biggest reason that conversions to 12s occasionally fail is that management unilaterally selects a schedule and imposes it on employees. Even if the schedule chosen is a good one, employees with no say in selection may mistrust management`s motives and fail to back the new schedule. Without employee support, guaranteeing coverage in case of absence can become a nightmare.

Changing to 12s represents a major cultural change, said one human resources manager who made the switch. “If you involve your employees from the outset, it really pays off in the long run.”

A good place to start is with a survey or open meeting intended to identify your workforce`s priorities. Management should encourage workers to rank the importance of issues such as days off, consecutive work days, weekends, overtime, and family and social needs.

Once these group criteria are determined, management can begin looking at 12-hour options that address workers` concerns and satisfy the company`s business objectives. Ideally, the company is able to offer employees a list of five or six alternatives, and employees can then vote for the schedule they prefer most. Since the workers are the ones who have to work the schedule, management should let them decide which one they want.

Of course, finding a 12-hour schedule that suits a company is not as easy as this brief description makes it sound. In reality, conversion from 8s to 12s is a complex process that usually takes from four to six months to complete and sometimes it takes much longer.

In some cases, if there is a history of animosity between management and labor, or if the current eight-hour schedule includes fixed shifts, employees may strongly resist an attempt to move to 12s. For this reason, some companies have found it worthwhile to hire an outside consulting firm to streamline the process, avoid pitfalls and act as an impartial third party.

Cost neutrality

One common misconception about schedule conversions is a belief that salaries dramatically increase when you go from 8s to 12s. Although some companies end up filling vacant slots when they go to 12s, leading to less reliance on overtime and getting staffing levels up to where they should have been all along, it is important to remember that employees still work exactly the same number of scheduled hours a year whether they`re on 8s or 12s.

Through use of shift differentials and modifications in holiday pay, companies can achieve cost neutrality, even though federal law requires time-and-a-half after 40 hours of work per week in most cases and even though many labor agreements require time-and-a-half after eight hours of work in a day.

With the increasing competition in the utility industry, this is an important factor to address. “Both sides need to view annual income as a double-edged boundary,” said consultant Nash. “If you work it out properly with the accounting department, the company doesn`t pay one penny more, and the employee doesn`t earn one penny less.”

Companies should not let perceived obstacles stop them from considering scheduling changes. Some companies take the position that it`s up to employees to research and select a 12-hour schedule–a shortsighted view that causes resentment among workers and can prevent the company from making a change that would have long-term benefits for both management and employees. z


Steve Mardon is editor of ShiftWork Alert, a monthly newsletter for managers of 24-hour operations, and Working Nights, a health and safety promotion newsletter for people who work nontraditional hours. Both are published by Circadian Information, Cambridge, Mass. For more information call (617) 661-2577 or [email protected] (email).

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Power plant control room operator. Photo courtesy of Max Control Systems.

Unions and 12s

Under any circumstances it is important to make the schedule selection and implementation process a partnership between management and workers, with open communication among everyone involved. In a unionized operation, it is even more essential.

Many unions believe the eight-hour workday represents a standard that must be maintained at all costs, and they perceive 12-hour shifts (12s) as a step backward. These perceptions–rooted in the early part of this century when people often worked 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week–ignore the fact that on today`s 12 schedules, people rarely work more than four days in a row and usually get 14 days off each month.

Many unions mistakenly believe 12s are a way for management to take advantage of workers and get by with fewer personnel. This is ironic, because with 12s, management is more likely to staff up to a full complement of workers instead of relying on fewer employees working lots of overtime.