WHEN Jim Huemmer realised the strong correlation between shift work and reported sleep disorders, it set the wheels in motion for the evolution of a whole new field of thinking.
Almost 30 years ago, the Principal of Brisbane-based Shiftwork Solutions was working with a sleep specialist at California’s Stanford University and saw the impact that irregular work hours had on people’s sleep patterns.
“We found a lot of people who came to the sleep clinic reporting problems didn’t have sleep disorders at all,” Jim said.
“It was just that employers weren’t addressing the impact that shift work had on people’s biological clocks and the resulting sleep deprivation.”
One thing led to another and before long Jim had helped pioneer the roster optimisation industry, moved to Australia and branched out on his own, establishing Shiftwork Solutions in 1996, a specialist in optimising rosters across multiple industry sectors.
“There are three key areas that rosters impact,” Jim said. “Firstly, there’s the business aspects of ensuring appropriate coverage and continuity of business, secondly the employee side which is all about finding work-life balance, and thirdly the health and safety aspects.
“Ideally, rosters will address and balance all three of those but it is a process of continuous improvement and sometimes may involve incremental changes to one or two of those areas.”
Jim says there is definitely no “one-size-fits-all” solution and effective outcomes require an in-depth understanding of all the elements involved.
“There are 168 hours in a week and some organisations may need to consider 20 or 30 different issues to identify where the priorities lie,” he said.
“In mining for example, there’s a need for 24-hour business continuity and you are often dealing with a mix of residential and remote workers so what suits one part of the workforce might not be suitable for another.”
According to Belinda Honey, Director of Consulting Services at Strategic Human Resources, most organisations are mindful of not letting rates of pay escalate out of control as was common during the last resources boom.
But that would also present problems in finding and retaining workers as we head into the next growth period.
“In WA particularly, it’s going to be far more difficult than it has been in the past to attract workers from the Eastern States,” Belinda said.
“With so many infrastructure projects underway right up the East Coast, people are getting good pay and can go home at the end of the day, so we need to look for other options.
“People’s willingness to work long hours is very much tied to financial rewards but rosters are one area that employers can use to attract and retain workers.”
Jim agrees, adding that it’s a balancing act to accommodate worker requests with an organisation’s business requirements.
“It would be perfect for workers to have seven or eight different rosters to choose from but it’s far from perfect for employers because work sites cannot operate efficiently or productively under that model,” he said.
“The other thing to consider is that while workers may make noises about more time off or changing their work hours, the majority of shift workers don’t actually like change because they’ve developed routines around the predictability of their rosters.”
Strategic Human Resources CEO Steve Rayner says during the last resources boom, costs and conditions were largely driven by suppliers, which led to multiple different roster arrangements and cost blowouts.
“As we move into the next upswing, organisations have a far better understanding or are seeking third-party advice on input costs and contract outcomes,” Steve said.
“One of the things that became apparent was that many organisations were only seeing between 45 and 65 per cent utilisation or ‘tool time’ because the supply chain, logistics and labour were not efficiently aligned.
“There’s been a maturing in client-side awareness and we’re increasingly being asked to initiate discussions with contract providers about how they can ensure workforces are being more efficiently utilised, motivated and rewarded.
“Roster optimisation is a significant contributor to that.”
Jim says it’s all part of the evolution of workforce management.
“Remember that 25 years ago, employers had little regard for the patterns of work that employees wanted,” he said.
“There were very few 12-hour shifts, Western Australia didn’t operate on Sundays and remote workers were expected to do 13 weeks on and one week off.
“Fortunately there’s much better understanding of the links between what works for employees and how that positively influences productivity and profitability.”
Jim Huemmer will be one of the speakers at SHR’s Workforce Weetbix breakfast event, taking place in Perth on 25 October. Look out for further details on the event in coming weeks and if you have questions on roster optimisation or any other workforce management issues, CONTACT SHR today.