Shift workers place health alongside pay

When determining how to reward shift workers, studies show that health concerns are just as valid as pay issues, says Laverne Hadaway

Case study: Nestle

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For industries that operate around the clock, such as food manufacturing, shift work is simply an inevitable part of day-to-day life. Neil Millan, head of employee relations and reward at Nestle, explains: “You can’t process milk and not be operating seven days a week, unless you have very large storage capacity.”

Figures from Incomes Data Services (IDS) puts the number of shift workers in the UK at around 3.5m, which is nearly one-in-seven employees. IDS data also shows that the largest proportion of shift work by far is carried out in the transport and communication sector (26.3%), closely followed by the manufacturing sector (18.4%).

While shift work typically involves working unsociable hours during the night and on public holidays, the amount that employees are given to compensate them for the inconvenience can be difficult to gauge.

Charles Cotton, reward adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), suggests that the trend may be moving away from paying different rates for shift work, especially in the public sector. “The Agenda for Change gives all NHS employees, except for consultants, a single set of terms and conditions. Public sector, manufacturing, service centres and call centres are moving away from different rates for shift work. People are just expected to work at different times and the payment for the unsocial hours is built in.” He adds that employers prefer not to pay extra increments so that they can be more flexible and adaptable in the peaks and troughs of workflow. “Unless there are local arrangements over terms and conditions or market forces that mean employers have to pay extra to persuade employees to do particular shifts, the pay will tend to be the same.”

Paul Sellers, policy adviser at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), admits that there is no law stating shift workers should be paid a premium for working unsociable hours. Nevertheless, he argues it may be customary and good practice, especially in a tight labour market. “If people have a choice, then they may need to be prodded into doing the unsocial hours.” However, he also argues that there is no robust data to show whether or not the trend is moving away from paying a premium for shift work done during unsociable hours.

Apart from pay, there are other considerations for shift workers. There is a plethora of studies to show they are prone to serious illnesses, stress, sleep disorders and accidents, which have all been linked to the hours that they work. The main issue appears to stem from night workers not getting enough good quality sleep. The natural rhythms of the body can be disturbed, making it difficult for workers to sleep during the day. Daytime light and noise can exacerbate the problem, which can lead to chronic tiredness increasing shift workers’ vulnerability to accidents and car crashes.

Numerous studies have shown that shift workers are prone to stomach illnesses such as ulcers and Crohn’s disease. According to Bupa, for example, they are susceptible to digestive problems linked to poor diet, disturbed sleep and stress. Heart problems and depression have also been linked to shift work as there appears to be a strong association with increased anxiety and stress levels.

However, apart from an onus on employers to offer free health assessments to those who work night shifts (see box) and to adhere to the usual health and safety rules, there seems to be little additional compulsion to compensate workers for the increased risks to their health. Even the health assessments may not be welcomed by workers. “Shift workers may not be keen to take up the offer of free health checks by their employers, even if they feel ropey. If their work is affecting their health, the employer could say, ‘that’s all we have to offer you. If you’re not up to scratch, goodbye’,” admits the TUC’s Sellers.

Another negative factor for shift workers is that they can miss out when public holidays such as Easter, Christmas and bank holidays occur. But, as yet, there is no statutory regulation for workers to be given bank holidays off or to be compensated with days in lieu when their shifts fall on those days. However, in its 2005 election manifesto, the government promised to ensure that the right to such holidays is enshrined in law. “The UK is the only country in the European Union where workers’ rights to bank holidays isn’t supported,” says Sellers. The TUC is reasonably confident that the government will honour its pledge, it is simply a matter of when.

However, he adds that most employers do give their shift workers time off in lieu or extra payment to compensate for working during public holidays.

So how well are shift workers compensated for their unsocial hours and the increased risk to their health? Shift Pay (805) published by IDS September 2005 suggests that the level of payment is usually linked to the relative inconvenience of the shift pattern. Factors taken into consideration include the length of the shift, the amount of night or weekend working involved and how often staff rotate. It suggests that additional payments for morning and afternoon shifts range from between 4% and 25%, while those for night shifts range from between 16.5% and 33.3%.

Sellers points out that people do want to be paid extra if they work unsociable hours, but concedes that extra pay is not the only way to keep shift workers happy. Some people deliberately choose shift work because they like working a compressed week of say four days on and three days off. One other factor that can help compensate staff for the disadvantages of shift work actually applies to employees across the board: the degree of freedom and autonomy in their work. “People want more control over their hours, shift patterns and ways of working. It applies just as much to night and evening workers. There’s something about involving people and giving them a say in how they do their jobs. It increases satisfaction and they are less likely to suffer stress related illnesses and conditions,” says Sellers.

McDonald’s is one organisation that has has picked up on this theory. The fast food chain has launched a pilot scheme that allows two people from the same family, who work in the same restaurant, to cover each other’s shifts with no prior notice. David Fairhurst, vice president of people, explains that McDonald’s believes it will provide staff with an additional degree of flexibility to help them juggle their busy lives, but that it will also enhance employees’ motivation.

“By giving our employees the freedom to manage their shift commitments, we will increase their motivation and enjoyment of work. That is fundamental to our business because it is a simple fact that happy employees mean happy customers.”

The Working Time Directive

The regulations define night time as the period between 11pm and 6am and a night worker as someone who regularly works for at least three hours during this period.

These employees should not work more than an average of eight hours in a 24-hour period (measured over a 17-week period).

Night workers are also entitled to a free health assessment before their assignment and at regular intervals. Whenever possible, those suffering from health problems connected with night work should be transferred to suitable day work.

Case Study: Nestle

Multinational corporation Nestle employs around 7,000 people in 13 locations around the UK, many of whom work shifts.

Neil Millan, head of employee relations and reward, explains that the company has always paid a premium to its shift workers and that it would be difficult to break the agreements and precedents established over many years. The company also sets its reward levels by benchmarking against its rivals.

Shift patterns vary between two and six-day shifts, all with different premiums. Workers on a four-day shift pattern, for example, receive a premium of around 28%, while those on a two-shift pattern receive around 18%. The five-shift premium is between 20% and 30%.

Despite some of the depressing statistics surrounding shift work, Millan points to more positive aspects. “Depending on the shift pattern, an employee can end up with huge chunks of time. They can then use the time to pursue a hobby, for example,” he explains.