Answering your questions about 12-hour shifts, unwanted touching, and being on time

Edited by Christopher S. Frings PhD, CSP

Twelve-hour shifts

Q: Due to a shortage in staffing,
we are considering 12-hour shifts. We are a small hospital lab operating 24/7. We are looking for creative options in staffing. Do you have any suggestions for creating 12-hour shifts? Or any cons?

A: Alton Sturtevant advises, We
have tried all sorts of creative staffing schedules over the years in an attempt to attract and retain personnel. In general, my advice is to create any schedule that will accomplish your mission and comply with your institutions wage and hours policies. The negatives that I find with any alternative schedule (especially one involving longer hours) are:

  • Finding people who will commit to working the schedule and will not tire of it and leave. 
  • Recruiting people to replace those who do leave.
  • People becoming tired and making mistakes during a hard shift.
  • Filling in for vacation and sick time off.
  • Having to revert to another type of schedule and getting HR buy-in if the new schedule fails. Do not be afraid of failure as a reason not to try alternative approaches. Make sure that HR is aware of the potential failure and that you are grasping at straws to cover your labs operation.

Dr. Sturtevant adds, We have had good luck using a seven-on/seven-off schedule to cover our difficult staffing periods. Our group works seven 10-hour days and then is off for the next seven days. With our staffing plan, we build in an added rate to reimburse for all vacation, holidays, and sick time (i.e., they do not accrue time off). You must have people who are committed to make this work and are willing to cover for each other for actual sick time.

Larry Crolla says, I think 12-hour shifts are OK if your staff will accept them. Because of this extended period of time, I would hope that these people are scheduled with backup for breaks and lunch and dinner. The cons are always fatigue and burnout from overwork.

Marti Bailey suggests, I think youre wise not to make such a decision lightly. You need to think about your staffing pool and whether you will be able to maintain consistent coverage if you go to 12-hour shifts. Certainly not everyone will be able to work this schedule. One group that may be quickly eliminated is working moms. Even if child-care arrangements can be made for this extended period, many moms wont want to be away from their children for 12 hours at a time. Unless you tend to have a lot of downtime, working 12 hours may simply be too physically demanding for others.

Ms. Bailey adds, Besides examining the pros and cons, you need to look at the price. What are people gaining or sacrificing by working long stretches and then having long stretches off? The lab may be solving its staffing problem, but if the folks working arent satisfied with their work schedule over the long term, then youre going to end up with a worse staffing shortage than before. Ive only known a few people who have worked 12-hour shifts, but theyve all said that on the days you work, you only have time for eating, sleeping, and working. And a portion of your off-time is spent catching up on rest because the work schedule is so exhausting. It certainly isnt a family-friendly schedule, meaning that your employees may no longer be able to maintain that all-important balance in their lives. Turning family life off for three or four days, then back on again for the next three or four days, is not likely to contribute to good relationships. I think there is a lot for you to consider. I dont see a lot of pros in 12-hour shifts, but there are folks who feel differently. According to Ms. Bailey, negatives include the following:

  • Limited labor pool.
  • Difficulty recruiting for openings.
  • Difficulty scheduling vacation time since employees have more days scheduled off.
  • Difficulty covering for vacations and call-offs.
  • Fatigue. 
  • Work-quality issues.
  • Quality-of-life issues.

Bottom line. The panel gives you more disadvantages than advantages to using 12-hour shifts. After you carefully consider what the panel says, you must make the decision that is best for your laboratory and its employees. Without great medical technologists, lab assistants, and other team members, a laboratory is high-rent space and used equipment. A laboratory is people. Today, putting together a great team of people who work together well is more difficult than it has been in the past in many locations. You have the opportunity to perform as a great manager. Good luck and remember, luck is opportunity meeting preparation.

Unwanted touching

Q: I am a male med tech who does
bench work. There is a female co-worker who touches my arm every time we speak, and a male co-worker who puts his hand on my shoulder when we walk. I want the man to stop. Any advice? 

A: You have to be careful whom you
touch and where you touch them.

Larry Crolla recommends, Just let the person know that the touching bothers you. If it doesnt stop after you have told them, then it is time to seek help from the lab administrator or the human resources department.

According to Alton Sturtevant, It appears that you have a problem with men touching you, but not women. It is up to you to determine what behavior is uncomfortable to you, and well within your rights to do so. You obviously do not want to ask him to stop. With that in mind, perhaps you can find another method to prevent the circumstances of the arm on the shoulder. If he just puts his arm on your shoulder when you are on his right, position yourself on his left and avoid a situation that is unpleasant for you.

Marti Bailey advises, I would tell him in private that it makes you uncomfortable when he touches you and that its nothing personal. If you do this, I would advise you to do the same with the female co-worker who is doing the same thing. This is probably the only way you can hope that the male co-worker wont take it personally. There are people who are just natural people touchers when they talk. Sexual innuendo is the furthest thing from their minds. Theyre simply people who need to communicate with additional senses. On the other hand, unwelcome touching of a persons body, hair, or clothing is an example of sexual harassment. Because there are these two distinct facets to touching, its incumbent upon the person who does not welcome being touched to make their position clear. Some people may take offense to being asked to stop touching, but hopefully they will get over it and realize that its just a matter of personal preference.

Bottom line. I dont think you can expect this to stop unless you make the request. You need to make it happen. There is no reason not to believe that it will stop when you ask, but if it doesnt, the next step is to report the problem to your supervisor.

Being on time

Q: I need advice from the panelists
about what to do about the outstanding contributor and tireless worker who cant get to work on time. We moved his start time back a half-hour. Now hes five minutes late for that, too. Any comments or recommendations from the panelists?

A: According to Marti Bailey, I feel that this has to be one of the top 10 most difficult personnel problems facing laboratories. On the surface, it seems like such a minor, innocuous issue really small stuff compared with major problems such as workplace violence, substance abuse, fair vacation scheduling, etc. I once worked for a lab manager who indicated that if an employees tardiness is not interfering with his getting his job done, then forget it. The truth is that its not nearly that simple. One employees tardiness even if its minor can have a ripple effect on other employees and on the entire operation. For instance, an entire work batch can be delayed, setting back reporting of patient results; an employee might miss the critical transition time between shifts when important information is communicated from the staff leaving to the staff coming on; or specimen processing might be delayed, thus affecting the work schedules of all the folks waiting to test those specimens.

Ms. Bailey adds, There may be a lot of jobs where minor tardiness has little or no impact, but in the laboratory this is much less likely to be the case. Where the staffs work is interrelated, the potential for negative effects is great. Youve already tried to accommodate this employee by moving his starting time. He now chooses to not be able to meet his obligation for this new starting time. I think its time to stop enabling him. He needs to be faced with the consequences of his actions. If it turns out that there are no negative consequences, then you can put the issue to rest. Document not only each incident of tardiness, but also what impact it caused on operations, if any. This record will make either him or you see the light. If his performance flaw is having a real negative impact on your operation, then he either has to correct it, or you need to take disciplinary action.

Larry Crolla recommends, Explain to the tardy person that you appreciate all his hard work, but you must enforce the on-time policy and its consequences since you must be fair to all employees.

Alton Sturtevant advises, If the specific hours of work are important, then the counseling process should be followed with this employee to either effect change in the behavior or terminate the persons employment. You can be as sympathetic as you like, but in the end, the employee must conform to your schedule. On a practical note, I would talk to the employee and pose the question to him and ask him for his solution. Explain that he is valuable and important to the organization, but that the bottom line is that he has two choices: Conform or face disciplinary actions.

Bottom line. Meeting performance standards is not intended to be a smorgasbord type of exercise. An employee cant choose to exceed some standards, fail to meet others, and call it even. Its all or nothing meaning that if an employee fails to meet any performance expectation and cant or wont correct the deficiency, he or she needs to go.

Christopher S. Frings is an internationally known consultant and speaker on the topics of leadership, managing change, time management, reaching goals, and stress management. His consulting firm, Chris Frings & Associates, is in Birmingham, AL.

December 2002: Vol. 34, No. 12

2002 Nelson Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.