The Cost of Shift Work Policies in the Manufacturing Industry

Principal Investigators
Center for Healthcare Studies, Northwestern University
Funded on

Numerous studies have shown that 12-hour shifts, rotating shifts, and unpredictable work schedules are associated with greater risk of chronic health conditions including mental illness, cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and obesity. Although large manufacturing companies recognize the risks, they cite several arguments in favor of maintaining them, including the 24/7 production schedule, and in some cases, employee preferences for long shifts to maximize days off and pay.

However, it is not clear how much additional health care spending is incurred due to unconventional work schedules. Building on prior work with four manufacturing plants, the research team will:

  1. Track increased incidence of chronic conditions related to unconventional work schedules;
  2. Estimate the additional health care costs incurred by the manufacturers, and by Medicare, due to unconventional work schedules; and,
  3. Engage leaders from the largest manufacturers in the U.S. to describe the factors they consider when establishing shift work policies.

Upon completion of the study: (1) Leaders of large manufacturing companies will have estimates of the additional per worker health care costs associated with unconventional work schedules, and can make better informed decisions about shift work policies. (2) Federal policymakers will, for the first time, have an estimate of the additional per enrollee Medicare costs associated with beneficiaries’ unconventional work schedules. If the costs are high, policymakers may consider ways to discourage the use of unconventional work schedules as a means to reduce Medicare spending. (3) Community health advocates will have a better understanding of the increased risk of chronic illness associated with unconventional work schedules, and of how companies make their shift work decisions. As a result, they will be better equipped to advocate for healthier work schedules. 

Evidence

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Despite extensive research showing that shift work compromises employee health, jobs that require work outside the traditional daytime hours of 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM have become ubiquitous across economically developed nations. Employers enact work scheduling policies based on the needs of company stakeholders and without evidence of the effect of shift work on health care costs, even though the companies ultimately bear the majority of those costs. Researchers Megan McHugh, Dustin D. French, Mary M. Kwasny, Claude R. Maechling, and Jane L. Holl examined the additional health care costs incurred by two large manufacturing companies due to their shift work requirements in this brief published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Jobs that require work outside the traditional daytime hours of approximately 8 AM to 6 PM have become ubiquitous across economically developed nations, but extensive research shows that shift work and long work hours may compromise employee health. Although employers recognize the potential harmful effects of shift work, many argue in favor of maintaining it, citing the nature of the work requiring a 24/7 schedule (e.g., public safety), maximization of production capacity in response to consumer demand, and in some cases, employee preference for long shifts to maximize days off and pay. In recent publications, P4A researcher Megan McHugh, doctoral student Adovich Rivera, and their colleagues from Northwestern’s Manufacturing and Health Research Program provide evidence on how shift work affects the incidence of chronic illness and overall worker well-being.<.p>