Security industry shift patterns and hours

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Are we setting the industry up to fail its employees and customers?

On Sunday I had the pleasure of listening to the first episode of Mr. Scott Taylor’s brand new podcast Securely Speaking. The guest on the episode was the world renowned Col. Dave Grossman and they were speaking on the subject of sleep and its effect on performance and resilience. Their conversation reminded me of many conversations I have had over the years about this subject in reference to security industry shift patterns and working hours. Working hours and shift patterns tend to be set up to minimize cost and maximize coverage and not necessarily to maximize the performance of the people providing the coverage. That’s what I want to talk about here. Do our traditionally held shift patterns and work practices do us any flavors as an industry?

Some points


I’ll attempt to summarise some of the key points from the interview. Bear in mind that Col. Grossman is a highly respected expert in this area and the points that he makes are all supported by research in his books and other publications. Some of the topics discussed:

  • The impact of lack of sleep
  • Length of shift and hours worked on performance
  • Energy drinks and impact on performance
  • The impact of shift working on performance
    These are just the points made in the podcast and they just relate to on the job performance. Not necessarily to other important things like work life balance or impact on relationship outside of work.

Shift Length


Where we work compressed work weeks (ie. 40 hours in less than 5 days) it is usually through a combination of moving from an 8 hour shift to a 10 hour shift or even a 12 hour shift. When research was carried out on police officers who had moved from an 8 hour day to a 10 or 12 hour day what they discovered was that while there was little difference on general performance of duties or safety there was a significant impact on officers fatigue levels and impact on quality of work life. However, when looking further at the shift pattern it was based on on people who worked 3×12 hours shifts in a week and not the 4 we commonly see in the security industry. A more recent (2019) study in nursing found that those working 12 hour shifts had less job satisfaction and more likely to leave work than those working shorter shifts. In 2012 the Health and Safety Authority carried out research and released guidance on night and shift workers. It states that where the work is monotonous, demanding (physically or mentally) or safety critical then 12 hours shift should be avoided in favour of 8 hour shifts.


Now that’s not to say that all 12 hour shifts are bad. Some people prefer 12 hour shifts. They work longer days and get an extra day off. Thats all great if it works for you. However, we cant allow it to happen just because it suits employees to the detriment of their performance and well-being in the long term.

Lack of Sleep


This should be obvious but lack of sleep affects our mood, our decision making and our behaviour. That is what is meant to happen. I’ve done it and many of you have done it for weeks on end. I’ve worked 100 hour weeks for a thank you and a big cut for the tax man. Somebody made money those weeks but it wasn’t me. Some do it because they want to and some do it because they have to but the reality is that it isn’t good for you, your employer or your customers.

There is so much research out there which shows that while amounts of sleep required vary from person to person the deprivation of sleep below required levels affects of both cognitive ability and decision making and can lead to negative moods and temperament. This is nothing new to anybody. We all know how we get when we are tired.

This issue is one I have been outspoken on for years and it is particularly prevalent in the door supervision sector. I have long argued that jobs as door supervisors should be a single employment role (i.e. the person shouldn’t have a day job as well) but the reality is for the vast majority the rates of pay and and hours don’t generally cover a full time wage. We have for years set door supervisors up for failure in this way. We know what sleep deprivation and long hours do to a persons mood and decision making. However, we still hire people who have come from a days work, come straight into the door job after dinner, work until 04:00 and been up at 08:00 to do it all again. We then expect these people to make good decisions under critical stress situations and be positive and professional towards everyone they meet. When things go wrong we blame them and often dismiss them as a simple solution (I’ll talk about proximate and distal factors for incidents in another article). How fair does that sound? I think it’s very unfair on the person, on the customer and on the client who is being charged for a professional at the top of their game.

Big boys rules

Of course there is an element of personal responsibility involved. The old approach of ‘big boys rules’ applies is prevalent across the industry. I see this particularly in the close protection world where operatives will often work 18 hour days and ‘tough it out’ because that’s what the job requires. I’ve no problem with that as long as we are honest enough to admit to ourselves that we aren’t on top of our game after continuous 18 hour days of mentally and physically draining work. How often is the client made aware that their protection is operating below par because of fatigue?

Instead we compensate with coffee and energy drinks and hope for the best. Coffee being by far the lesser of two evils when compared to the some of the ingredients in energy drinks. These will get us through in the short term but over time our tolerance becomes higher and the effect becomes lessened. Couple this with more research that says that both prolonged excessive coffee and energy drinks impair decision making and we have a recipe for long term failure.

How do we fix it?

This isn’t going to be an easy fix. It’s going to take time and a mindset and cultural shift. A shift away from minimising cost and effort in recruiting and towards maximising the service provided to clients. Small things can start to affect it now. Things like:

1. Moving to 8 hour shifts in stressful or safety critical security roles

2. Roster planning to ensure rest days fall together where possible

3. Not treating the minimum shift turn around time between shifts (11 hours in Ireland) as the standard but rather as an absolute minimum.

4. Enforcing rules on second employment and also in making it lucrative enough for an employee to want to work for you full time. You can’t advertise for a professional and then expect them to have another profession to make ends meet..

Summary

If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet I highly recommend it. There is some really insightful stuff in which motivated this rant. It’s not a rant though. It’s just something to consider. We can’t perform at our best if we are set up for failure. Being a professional sometimes means that we have to speak up for ourselves and admit we need help. That’s another culture and mindset shift in itself.

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