Keeping SA’s booming 24-hour hospitality industry staff on top of their game

Troubleshooting night shift, absenteeism and threats to wellness

One of the few advantages of the weakening rand is that it makes South Africa even more attractive as a tourism destination. Domestic tourism also remains strong, fuelling demand for the services of the hospitality industry. While the guests are enjoying themselves, however, the staff supporting this 24-hour industry, face a number of wellness challenges.

“The tourism and hospitality industries are major employers in South Africa, with approximately one in 22 employed individuals working in these fields,” observes Lizette Bester, productivity expert and Agility Corporate executive.

“Companies that are in the business of pandering to the wishes of guests around the clock frequently require staff to work around the clock in order to keep everything running smoothly and seamlessly from one day to the next. However, working irregular hours can interfere with the body’s circadian rhythms, which regulate our sleeping patterns.

“If not carefully managed, this can lead to a number of physiological and psychological problems for people working unconventional hours, which may be detrimental to productivity. It is therefore vital that companies look for ways of minimising the potentially harmful effects that night work and irregular shifts could have on their employees, and their bottom line.”

International studies across various industries have suggested that:

  • Sleep-deprived staff members are 14% more likely to be late for work and 19% more likely to make crucial errors.
  • Staff members who do not get sufficient sleep are nearly twice as likely to be injured or killed in a work-related accident.
  • When sleep deprived, a person’s ability to solve problems decreases 57% and their decision-making abilities are reduced by 56%.

A recent Agility Corporate case study in the local hospitality industry highlights some of the problems people working nightshift or rotating shifts may face. “Common health conditions faced by staff working nightshift include depression, headaches and obesity. It is interesting to note that people working for long stretches in artificial light, which may also interfere with circadian rhythms, can experience similar such ill effects,” Bester adds.

According to Bester, many employers in this sector struggle to develop adequate policies and procedures to effectively address workers’ needs and manage absenteeism without compromising on the level of service the employer is able to offer their guests.

“Many employers are unaware of the risks associated with sleep deprivation, which can arise from working at night and irregular shifts. When people do not get quality sleep, it impacts on concentration and the ability to function properly. Furthermore, employees may neglect their physical health, through unhealthy lifestyle choices including poor diet and lack of exercise, or may even turn to abusing substances, such as stimulants and sedatives, in an attempt to regulate their cycles of sleeping and wakefulness artificially.”

It has been estimated that sleep deprivation costs business in the United States an estimated $150 billion a year in absenteeism, workplace accidents and lost productivity. While the impact of this problem has not been quantified in South Africa, Bester notes that this is an indication of the importance of sleep for productivity.

Agility Corporate specialises in helping employers in various industries to identify obstacles to optimise productivity in their workforce and develop targeted solutions specific to these challenges.

“In order to make tangible, sustainable progress, the difficulties staff experience need to be understood in context and addressed holistically. Often, relatively simple and cost-effective solutions are within easy reach and can significantly reduce levels of absenteeism and improve overall productivity,” she adds.

“We assisted one of our hospitality clients to arrange the shift roster in such a way that their employees have a more gradual transition from night shift to day shift with their allocated days off in between so that their circadian rhythms would be better able to adjust. Thereafter, the staff members were better rested, more productive and engaged more meaningfully in their work,” Bester says.

“Talking to the employees about how they sleep during the day when they are on nightshift also enabled us to develop practical solutions to help improve the quality of sleep they were getting when they are off duty. Another aspect was educating the employees about the importance of drinking plenty of water, as often people drink tea or coffee during a night shift, and sleeping during the day tends to leave one more dehydrated.

“We also organised a wellness event where the employees were offered preventative health screenings and voluntary HIV counselling and testing, and provided informative presentations to help the staff to make healthier choices.

“Employees who are members of one of our partner medical schemes, or whose employers subscribe to our occupational health offering Agility StaffCare or utilise any three Agility group risk products, also have access to our core Employee Wellbeing Programme,” Bester adds.

This innovative programme provides access to basic financial, legal and psychological counselling over the phone with relevant experts. In addition to providing greater peace of mind, these services can significantly assist individuals to mitigate a range of common pressures and can help to offset the potential effects of stress on existing health conditions.

“Employees cannot simply leave their problems at the door when going to work, and personal issues may seem even more overwhelming if a person is sleep deprived. These counselling services can be very effective in combination with other targeted interventions to help employees deal with sources of stress that could negatively impact on their wellness and job performance,” Bester notes.

A considerable financial benefit for employers making use of Agility Corporate solutions is that the risk mitigation measures implemented can be presented to the underwriters of the company’s group risk insurance provider, or providers, with a view to negotiating a reduction in premiums – thereby reducing the costs associated with employment.

“The hospitality and tourism industry is focused on creating unforgettable experiences for their guests, day and night. To provide guests with the best possible experience, it is imperative to get the best out of the staff members who ‘make the magic happen’, so to speak, and this is our speciality,” Bester concludes.