When the going gets tough – the tough should get moving
With lack of sleep leading to a warped body clock and rapidly increasing health risks, fatigued employees need a wake-up call, and they need it fast. Glenn Riseley, founder and president of the Global Corporate Challenge, talks about ways to improve the health of workers, and get them snoozing for longer.
Business can be subjected to upwards and downwards cycles in every sector, and currently Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) are seeing the impact of lower commodity prices on many of our mining, energy and gas clients.
Of the 50 industries we work with, this sector is our second largest, so we have a clear window into how human resources leaders are responding to challenging times. I am pleased to report that the industry is showing an unwavering commitment to their employees’ health and wellbeing in the face of the necessary reductions in head counts and the tightening of budgets.
This is pleasing because it demonstrates how enlightened the sector is today and how much progress has been made in supporting its people.
The reasons for every employer, regardless of their industry, continuing to invest in their people through tough times are varied and compelling, but for the mining sector there is an even greater need. The sector employs some of the most vulnerable workers – shift workers.
Shift workers represent around 20 per cent of the labour market, but they represent a higher percentage of employees in some sectors such as hospitals, security, manufacturing, financial services, journalism, logistics, transport and – at the top of the list – mining, energy and gas.
Around one in five employees who start shift work quit their job within the first year. Those who remain find ways to get by and manage, but they are at greater risk of chronic disease and infirmity.
The physical effects on shift workers have been fairly well–documented and the most well–recognised is the impact of different sleep patterns and its corresponding effect on these employees’ levels of melatonin – the hormone that regulates sleep.
For FIFO employees working swing shifts, the switch back to regular sleep patterns is an equally difficult adjustment. Beyond the melatonin levels, shift workers face ongoing daily (or rather, nightly) challenges. In fact, the uphill battle that your shift workers fight each day is confronting.
For a start, your shift workers are working against their own internal biological clocks. We don’t often give our natural body clock much thought, but it has evolved over thousands of generations to ensure that we function efficiently. Every one of us has a unique Circadian–rhythm, which is normally a 24–hour cycle.
We don’t perform as well at night because we have evolved to perform at our best during the day. Our hearts beat faster during the day, which pumps more blood around the body. We also breathe faster during the day, which ensures that the body and brain receive a greater amount of oxygen and our digestive system functions differently during the day compared to night time.
Our large muscle groups are programmed to perform and remain active. After dark, they tend to shut down and enter recovery and repair mode. In summary, the inner clock is set to help employees’ bodies function better and more easily throughout the day.
The impact influences our temperature and hormones and our energy levels. Is it any wonder that shift working employees who have to fight against all of this face elevated risks for a number of conditions?
Take, for example:
Disturbance in shift workers’ sleep patterns can have a detrimental impact on both physical and mental recovery. As well as having to fight the clock, there are more practical impediments for these employees such as noise, light and higher temperatures. It is important to consider the importance of sleep in the context of mental health especially. A lack of sleep compromises the immune system, leading to more frequent absenteeism from illnesses such as colds and flu.
We are programmed to eat during the day and when we eat at night, our bodies function with less efficiency. Often, the choices for eating are limited to shift workers because fast food is the only nearby option. Also, because of the lower energy levels of these employees, they are susceptible to cravings for sugary, energy dense foods such as chocolate and sweet drinks. This temporary spike in energy is only a spike, and when the sugar rush leaves, the craving for more energy dense food continues. It is also common for employees working on remote, cooler locations to crave fatty foods because of lower temperatures.
Shift workers work unsociable hours and often feel out of step with their friends and colleagues. It is easier for them to become disconnected. There is often a feeling of isolation amongst shift workers. For many mining employees who work remotely, the isolation from their friends and family can create feelings of inner restlessness and anxiety.
One of the key drivers of lower health scores amongst shift workers is poorer lifestyles. These employees suffer from higher rates of cardiovascular disease because they are likely to smoke more and exercise less. The lack of physical activity for employees in the mining sector is understandable because most of us rely on creating an exercise routine in order to ensure that daily activity becomes a ritual. For mining employees, this can be difficult to create and sustain. In addition, many of the roles in the mining sector tend to be sedentary occupations which involve operating heavy machinery.
The impact on employees is alarming and includes higher rates of accidents both at work and at home due to fatigue and/or excessive daytime sleepiness. The personal cost includes higher rates of reproductive issues, ulcers, metabolic syndrome, stroke, depression and poor memory scores.
There is even evidence that shift workers face a higher risk of cancer, which is why in 2007, the World Health Organization declared shift work a probable carcinogen. This list is by no means exhaustive and only includes what is understood so far, because there has actually been only a limited number of studies on the long-term effects.
When times get tough, it is common to see some organisations’ leadership begin to think more short-term and consider any investment in employees’ health as a nice–to–have. There is always a focus on safety, but the evidence is increasingly clear – health and safety cannot be separated. They are one and the same.
A study, carried out by scientists at the University of Swansea, showed that shift workers suffer from impaired cognition. The association was stronger for employees who had worked shift work for longer than 10 years (with a dose effect of cognitive loss equivalent to 6.5 years of age–related decline, the recovery period or reversibility in this study was at least five years).
This indicates that shift work chronically impairs cognition, with potentially important safety consequences and performance deterioration for employees in the mining and energy sector. Beyond the safety considerations of health and safety, there is the more obvious impact of poor health amongst mining employees working shift work and swing shifts and their levels of productivity.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
The most important step is to recognise that employees in the mining sector need support – especially when times are tough. GCC works across 50 different industries and we see a consistent pattern in all kinds of workplaces: people don’t take care of their health. Employers with a high proportion of blue–collar employees tend to over-index on the health skeptics – those are the employees who have given up on themselves.
Here’s how you can create a culture of health:
PUT THEM INTO TEAMS
The single biggest opportunity is reconnecting your employees. They may be working for you at different times and in different locations and this dislocation from their support network is unhelpful for an employee trying to make changes to their lifestyle.
This is why GCC puts employees into teams of seven. This simple measure puts every employee in a supportive environment and creates social connections and helps normalise the new behaviours. Some years ago, mining employees from BHP participating in GCC explained that they would all “hop out of the bus” two kilometres short of their accommodation each afternoon on their journey home. They would then walk the rest of the way.
The result was not only more physically active employees, but they also reported drinking less. Importantly, they all did it together. This simple act in isolation might seem odd, but when everyone starts to do it, it becomes quite normal.
So tapping into employees’ sense of teamwork and camaraderie not only creates momentum, but it improves morale and gets everyone working towards a common goal.
GET THEM MOVING
Although mining employees are statistically likely to have lower health scores and higher BMIs, and are less likely to be as active when compared to other sectors, once they’re in GCC, they figure out ways to move that will astound you. Past participants have clocked up steps by walking laps of their rig. And, as the graph below shows, these employees have come to love moving and being active.
GET THEM EATING BETTER
Mining and energy employees need to take an interest in nutrition and understand it better than regular employees. Their awareness of the impact of caffeine, sugar and fibre on their bodies is paramount.
The good news is that we have discovered that once employees are moving, their minds open to how their food choices impact their health. Your employee’s bodies are machines and once they start to properly operate this machinery then it is only natural that they take an interest in what kind of fuel they fill it with.
For one thing, we see a reduction in alcohol consumption once employees are in GCC and developing a greater sense of self–awareness and personal responsibility for their health.
GIVE THEM THE RIGHT TOOLS
No responsible employer would send employees out into the field without the right equipment and training. When it comes to helping your employees take care of their health, the same thinking needs to be applied.
Every employee needs daily access to tools that help them develop a greater sense of self–awareness, motivation to keep going, and ongoing education. For example, many employees in the mining and energy sectors lack a consistent routine in their lives which can makes creating and embedding habits more difficult.
GCC runs over 100 days, which is long enough to ensure that employees who discover ways to be healthy, make those changes permanent. The simple challenge of taking 10,000 steps each day for 100 days may sound daunting at first, but it is a challenge that employees in the mining and energy sector easily conquer.
They begin to see a world of opportunities to become physically active that they’d never noticed before – whether it is at home, on ships, on trains, on drilling platforms, on oil rigs, down mines, on planes, in security sentries or around truck stops.
By giving every kind of employee small and achievable goals, they are drawn into playing a game that ultimately changes their attitude to their own health. It instills in them a sense of personal responsibility that draws them into using the tools and information at their disposal to help them.
GCC data, gathered from a 2014 post–event survey of participants, and a global sleep report, showed that:
- 58% reported improvement in team work
- 63% reported a decrease in their stress level
- 57% improved engagement.
- One third reported an increase in their productivity
- On average, participants increased their sleep by 45 minutes per night
The most respected employers in the mining/ energy/gas sector have seen the booms and busts come and go. They’ve reined in their spending and put projects on hold and reduced their head count.
But one thing they never do is make compromises on the health and safety of their people. In fact, the most enlightened businesses around the world are increasing their efforts to maintain and improve the health, engagement and performance of their workers. After all, tough times require tough people.
“For many mining employees who work remotely, the isolation from their friends and family can create feelings of inner restlessness and anxiety.”
Glenn Riseley is the founder and president of the Global Corporate Challenge. Since starting the company 11 years ago, he has become a regular and engaging media commentator on health and wellbeing-related topics in the workplace.
GCC has worked with businesses across the world to make employees healthy and engaged, so they perform at their best.
To learn more about improved leep and health at work, visit www.gettheworldmoving.com.