There are many reasons why some companies require their workers to put in extended work hours. Some use it as a way to increase productivity. In some cases, this occurs only as an emergency measure when longer hours may benefit some industries, such as construction, during harsh weather conditions. In other cases, this strategy is used to improve job satisfaction and worker morale, especially when longer hours will be worked in exchange for additional days off.
Extending work hours beyond the usual eight-hour work shifts to ten or twelve work hours per day usually results in working fewer days per week. This may be advantageous for workers who like to have more consecutive days off to spend with their families. It may also mean spending less time commuting because of fewer consecutive workdays. However, there are some disadvantages, including an increased risk of fatigue, which may be associated with reduced alertness and safety in and out of work.
Potential risks of extended work hours
Working longer shifts has been associated with increased fatigue and sleep loss. Although some studies have found no correlation between working up to twelve hours and increased incidence of compromised safety or error rates, experts explain that this might be due to increased emphasis on preventive measures to ensure safety. However, extended work periods, especially up to sixteen hours or more, can interfere with one’s eating and sleeping habits, which may adversely affect workers’ health. Studies show that fatigue or exhaustion is one of the most common complaints of workers, especially among women. WorkSafeBC reports that the effects of being awake for more than sixteen hours are equivalent to having significant blood alcohol levels.
The effects of fatigue include reduced productivity, vigilance and attention, decreased ability to plan and make decisions, and increased errors of judgment, forgetfulness and risk-taking. In terms of health, fatigue can result in loss of appetite, increased susceptibility to ailments, and increased digestive problems.
Employer guidelines for extending workdays
In some jurisdictions, such as Alberta, a workday is limited to twelve consecutive hours of work unless urgent work is necessary or unpreventable circumstances arise. Special permission may be granted to extend work hours. Employers must find out if there are any regulations regarding scheduling more than eight hours of work per day in their jurisdiction.
Some guidelines employers should consider when scheduling extended workdays include:
- Consulting with workers about their willingness to have extended workdays; this helps improve job satisfaction and morale.
- Considering adjustments to the physical demands of the job, exposure to occupational hazards such as noise, vibration, or chemicals, and factors in job design, like rest schedules, to make extended workdays more acceptable.
- Considering the amount of stress involved in jobs that involve greater mental or emotional demands. Allowing workers to have more rest breaks or variation of tasks to reduce strain is one recommended approach.
- Providing additional on-site support for workers, such as child care.
- Trying an experimental period for extended workdays, introducing the strategy gradually to small groups, to allow better analysis of the new schedules. This can include monitoring health levels, accident rates, as well as absenteeism rates, and should include feedback from the employees to learn whether they are satisfied with the changes.
—Angelica Giron MD for Safety Reboot
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