By definition, a shift worker is any worker who follows a work schedule that deviates from the typical 9 to 5 business schedule. Traditionally, nurses, doctors, pilots, flight attendants, security guards, fire fighters and truck drivers were among the most common shift work positions. Today, shift work is becoming increasingly common across sectors, including in many so-called white collar professions. Indeed, an estimated 8.6 million US workers engage in some form of shift worker. The reason for the increase is simple. As US businesses strive to keep up in a global market, being available 24-hours a day, not simply during one’s local business hours, is becoming increasingly important. While many businesses opt to hire overseas workers (e.g., many US banks employ customer service agents in India to field late night and early morning calls), other companies opt to employ shift workers in the US. While being on all the time may be good for business, the negative impacts of shift work are well documented. But what are the implications for training and can adopting a learning management system help?
Evaluating the Impact of Shift Work
Over the past three decades, the negative impacts of shift work on workers’ health have been widely documented. Among other key findings, researchers have discovered that shift workers suffer from:
• Severe fatigue, which is also linked to poor concentration and as a result, to workplace injuries and in some cases, workplace fatalities.
• Find it difficult to eat and exercise on a regular schedule and as a result, report higher rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.
• Are generally more depressed than non-shift workers (some researchers even maintain that the isolation of shift work may have a direct impact on brain chemistry, leading to lower levels of serotonin—a chemical that plays a major role in mood changes).
Less well documented but just as notable are the negative impacts of shift work on workers’ training and advancement opportunities. Among other challenges, shift workers face the following:
• Difficulty attending evening and weekend courses due to their erratic schedules.
• Difficulty concentrating for long periods of time and as a result, difficulty staying on top of many training and upgrading courses.
• Cognitive decline, which in turn makes it more difficult to acquire new skills quickly and put them into practice. Notably, a 2014 study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine linked shift work to “impaired cognition” and found that this impairment increases with shift work duration. The same study reported that upon leaving shift work, it takes at least 5 years for workers to fully recover their lost cognitive functioning.
Selecting a Learning Management System for Shift Workers
As suggested above, shift workers face unique challenges from a training perspective. They are often less able to train and upgrade their skills outside of work hours; less able to concentrate on studying due to fatigue; and may even find training more challenging due to the negative cognitive effects of shift work. For this reason, shift workers are arguably a cohort of workers who have a great deal to gain from the flexible training models made available by eLearning and mLearning.
When choosing a learning management system (LMS) for shift workers, it is critical to focus on three key components: flexibility; pacing; and repeated access.
• Flexibility: Choose a LMS that enables you to develop training courses that shift workers can access at any time of day or night.
• Pacing: Shift workers may be more willing and able to complete a series of short training sessions of 5 to 15 minutes than one or two longer sessions.
• Repeated access: Fatigue has been shown to impact memory; choose a LMS that enables you to archive training sessions and ensure workers can re-access key training modules as needed.
The benefits of choosing the right LMS for shift workers are twofold. On the one hand, organizations gain by developing an approach to training that best suits the needs and attention spans of their workforce. On the other hand, workers gain by being able to access training at short intervals in a flexible delivery format. While more research is still needed, high quality training may also be a way to mitigate the negative cognitive impacts some researchers associate with long-term shift work.