Ethics in Shift Work

Subject: Healthcare Research
Pages: 10
Words: 3177
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: PhD


The purpose of this study will be to assess ethical practices and principles within the field of shift work in the law enforcement industry. The study will seek to address the ethical practices that are used in governing the work duties of police officers who work in shifts and how these ethical principles are used to address potential dilemmas. To better understand the topic under study, various concepts need to be defined. Shift work refers to a form of employment practice that utilizes the 24-hour system to organize work duties and activities into portions referred to as shifts (Tamagawa et al, 2007). It is also defined as a type of work schedule where employees work for certain hours that are different from the standard hours of work that are usually allocated for most employees. Shift work according to many researchers is synonymous with odd or irregular working hours as the time employees perform their duties is different from that of traditional working hours (Costa, 2003).

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Shift work has become a common phenomenon especially in the service industry where professionals who work in hotels, call centers, hospitals, fire stations, correctional facilities, and police stations are required to be on the job 24 hours a day. The law enforcement industry with a particular focus on policing requires its employees to be on the job at all hours of the day and night to ensure that law and order have been maintained within their jurisdictions. All law enforcement officers are required to work in both the night and day shifts as the nature of their work requires them to be on the job round the clock with scheduled work breaks and rest durations. The reason for doing this is to increase the level of police patrols and surveillance, especially in dangerous neighborhoods so that crime levels are reduced. The general goal of shift work in most organizations is to increase the production and profit margins of a company without necessarily having the employees work for overtime (Swenson et al 2008).

Ethics within work organizations refers to the moral principles that govern the behavior and conduct of a person when performing their work duties. Ethics is defined as the set of moral principles that relate to a person’s conduct when it comes to certain situations. Ethical principles govern the moral framework of most industries around the world and they determine the code of conduct that will be used to govern the business operations of a company operating within a specific industry. Every organization around the world has a code of conduct that is used by employees to determine their conduct when it comes to various ethical dilemmas that might arise in the performance of work duties. In the law enforcement industry, all police officers are subject to codes of conduct that will determine the performance of their duties (Dembe, 2008).

The law enforcement code of conduct covers the primary responsibilities of police officers where they are required to act as the official representatives of the government, the level of discretion that they are meant to exercise when performing their duties to ensure that it is not in contradiction with the laid out laws and procedures, the use of force or any form of violence where police officers are not required to employ any excessive force when discharging their duties, the exercise of confidentiality where whatever they witness or hear should be kept a secret from the public and the exercise of integrity where all officers serving under the law enforcement industry are not meant to engage in illegal acts such as bribery, corruption or theft. These codes of ethics are important in the execution of the police officers job to ensure that their duties and responsibilities are not in contravention to the codes of ethics (Swenson et al, 2008). This study will seek to address the ethical practices that exist in shift work by relating these practices to shift work in the law enforcement industry.

Ethical Practices in Shift Work

Shift work has created a lot of ethical considerations because of the demanding work schedules and heavy workloads that most employees who work in shifts are plagued with. Shift work also presents other ethical considerations such as the complications that arise from the distinctive form of employment that governs the practice of shift work. In most work contexts, employees usually have partial control over their work activities as well as their working environment which at times makes it difficult for them to exercise ethics when performing their work duties. Shift work just like any other form of work is governed by various codes of conduct and practice that guide the duties of professionals who work in shifts (Dembe, 2008).

The codes of ethics developed for shift work mostly focus on responding to the long standing concerns that have arisen because of the impact of working for extended hours amongst employees. The risks created by fatigue and sleep deprivation have played a major role in the health of employees who work in shifts because they are exposed to extreme working conditions. The code of ethics for shift work therefore addresses such problems by educating and creating awareness on the ethical principles employers need to follow when utilizing work shifts. The purpose of the code of ethics is to provide practical guidance on how work risks and hazards can be minimized as the employee performs their duties. The code of work shift applies to all salaried employees that work in shifts within the various industries and sectors (Australian Medical Association, 2005).

The code stipulates that all employers who operate under work shifts should provide their employees with a safe system of working where they can be able to perform their duties without any threat to their general health and well being. In the law enforcement industry, this stipulation of the shift work code would require all police commandants to provide their junior police officers with a safe system of performing their work especially during the night shift to ensure that they do not experience any health complications that arise as a result of their line of work. The code also stipulates that employers are meant to provide adequate training and instruction to their employees to ensure that they are not exposed to extreme working condition during their shifts. This training in the case of law enforcers will be in the form of hazard training and emergency training preparedness to ensure that they are prepared when dealing with certain dangerous situations (Australian Medical Association, 2005).

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The code of shift work also stipulates that employers have to monitor the work conditions of their employees to ensure that their exposure to health causing factors is not breached or contravened. For example police officers who work during the night shift are required to wear warm clothing such as jackets, hats and gloves to ensure that they are not exposed to harsh weather conditions (Australian Medical Association, 2005). The code also stipulates employees have to observe their circadian rhythms which are mostly associated with their sleep patterns, body temperature and motor functions to ensure that they have the capacity and capability to perform their jobs adequately where they are meant to observe their circadian rhythms to ensure they are not sleep deprived or they do not experience periods of insomnia (Sharifian et al, 2005).

The ethical practices that govern shift work for most occupational jobs in the service industry involve addressing certain areas of concern in shift work such as the excessive number of hours that an employee is meant to work in to complete their shift. The number of hours that are worked within a shift are usually determined by industrial agreements between the employer and employee but in some cases these hours might be extended to deal with heavy workloads that come with the nature of the job. Working for excessive hours has several consequences on the employee where they experience some disruption of their circadian or sleep patterns which in turn affects their job performance and overall productivity. The ethical practices of shift work also deal with issues of rest within and between the shift work periods where employees are required to take a break during predictable time schedules so that they can be able to concentrate properly on their work (Australian Medical Association, 2005).

The lack of suitable rest has been identified by most researchers to be a significant health hazard because work injuries or incidents which occur within the work environment are usually caused by employees who suffer from sleep deprivation. Such hazards present themselves in employees who have either been placed on rotating work shifts or those who have put on permanent night shifts. Researchers have however noted that employees who have been placed on permanent night shifts never really adapt to their work schedules despite getting used to their duties and responsibilities (Sharifian et al, 2005). According to research work conducted by Violanti et al (2008), police officers who work during the night shift find it difficult to adapt this type of work because of the irregular and complex hours they are forced to stay up which ends up disrupting their sleeping patterns. The officers also find it difficult to adapt to night work because of the cumulative sleep debt and fatigue they experience when they work during the night shifts.

Ethical practices in shift work also cover aspects such as irregular and unpredictable work schedules where the code of ethics requires employers to provide their employees with regular and predictable work scheduling arrangements that will not affect their sleeping patterns as well as their social life. Irregular or unpredictable work schedules usually affect the family and social life of an employee where they lack time to spend with their families and friends. This increases their risk of social dislocation and it also limits the amount of time set aside for relaxation. The ethical principles of irregular or unpredictable work schedules require employers to make arrangements for their employees to take a break from their tedious work schedules so that they can adequately rest (Australian Medical Association, 2005).

The type of work that is performed by an individual during the work shift is an ethical issue for most employers as it determines the types of tasks and the amount of time needed to complete the tasks before the shift ends. Research work has been able to reveal that a particular set of tasks is usually performed at a particular time of the day or night such as bank collections and money transfers which are best performed during the day instead of at night. The type of work that is performed during the night shift affects the length of time that will be needed to complete the work tasks. Additional workloads will mean that more time will be needed to complete the work which might affect the general performance of the employee given that they are already under a certain amount of pressure (Australian Medical Association, 2005).

Ethical Dilemma of Shift Work

A potential ethical dilemma that is likely to arise especially in shift work for the law enforcement industry is the irregular and unpredictable work schedules that police officers are forced to work to ensure that there is the observance of law and order in the areas that fall under their jurisdiction. According to their employment contracts, police officers are required to work full-time seven days a week for a total of 37 hours with an average rest period of two days only. Because they provide a 24 hour service to the public citizens of their jurisdictions, they are required to maintain unpredictable and irregular work shift hours which mean that they should always be on call in the event an emergency occurs. The working environment of police officers is unpredictable and variable which requires them to maintain irregular working hours which might adversely affect their social life (Johnson & Lipscomb, 2006).

The irregular work hours and unpredictable environment also means that their work is pressurized because they face continual security concerns especially in the case of police officers who work in dangerous and risk jurisdictions. This places a lot of physical demands on the police officers meaning that the amount of time they have set aside for their social life is consumed by their jobs. The ethical dilemma presents itself in the form of social dislocation which means that police officers are unable to schedule personal and family activities because of the demanding nature of their jobs. The ethical principle of irregular or unpredictable work schedules requires for shift work requires that all employees should have predictable and regular work scheduling arrangements that will allow them to take a break from their demanding work (Caruso et al, 2006).

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Employers who fail to provide their employees with regular and predictable work schedules increase the risks of an employee developing social dislocation. The adverse effects of this ethical dilemma are that the employee will be unable to participate in any social activities that involve their friends, colleagues, relatives and close family members. Maintaining the various aspects of their social life becomes difficult especially in the event they have to forego sleeping so that they can spend some time with their family members of friends. Such social dislocation usually places a lot of pressure on these relationships especially within the family where a police officer who is a parent is unable to attend their children’s school functions or other important aspects of their life (Johnson & Lipscomb, 2006).

Their inability to participate in community activities might also affect the type of relationships they have with the various members of the society since they are unable to contribute to important developmental activities such as fundraising committees and neighborhood watch committees that are meant to benefit them and the society as a whole. A poor social will have a direct impact on the job performance of the employee where their performance and productivity levels are affected because of the strain their social relationships are going through. Providing police officers with predictable work schedules is important as it allows them to plan allocate time to build their social relationships. Employees who have stable and successful work relationships have a more positive attitude towards their work. Predictable work schedules are meant to ensure that employees are able to manage their work duties properly (Vila, 2006).

The irregular and unpredictable hours also present an ethical dilemma for many employers when police officers develop health complications and work related injuries as a result of the nature of their job. Such situations mostly occur when the ethical principles that guide shift work for police officers are not observed by their superiors in the police stations and government security organs. For example in the case of excessive consecutive hours, employers are meant to ensure that their employees are able to get some certain form of reprieve from their demanding jobs to ensure that they do not suffer from health complications which arise as a result of working non-stop for irregular hours (Vila, 2006). Police officers are required to work for 24 hours in a day which sometimes might be done in shifts divided into day and night shifts. In the event there are no replacement officers, they might be forced to work non stop until they complete their 24 hour work schedule. This poses major health problems such as sleep deprivation because their circardian rhythms have been disrupted, cardiovascular or heart problems, migraines, headaches and fatigue (Sharifian et al, 2005).

The ethical principle of resting within and between work shifts also brings about health complications where a police officer is constantly on call or on the job 24 hours a day to ensure that there order and peace has been maintained within their jurisdiction. The principle requires that police officers should take predictable breaks during periods of intensive physical work to reduce the chances of sleep deprivation and insomnia as well as feelings of fatigue which if allowed to persist lead to major health complications such as heart problems (Australian Medical Association, 2005). The ethical dilemma of irregular and unpredictable work hours therefore presents various challenges to the job performance police officers.

Suggestions to Resolving Ethical Dilemmas

The nature of police work is dangerous and unpredictable because of the high probability of accidents occurring at any time and cases of unrest or violent activities happening without any form of warning. These are some of the reasons why police officers are required to be on the job 24 hours a day to deal with cases of criminality and unfortunate incidences that might occur within their jurisdictions. One of the suggestions that can be used to deal with ethical dilemmas such as those of complex or irregular working hours involves work or performance reductions where the various types of duties that come with being a police officer can be modified to allow for predictable breaks which will enable the police officers to maintain a positive social life which will in turn affect their job performance. Predetermined breaks from unpredictable work schedules also ensure that their circadian rhythms and sleep patterns are not affected by the abnormal hours they are forced to stay up. On-call arrangements can be used where officers who are off-duty can be called in the event of an emergency or violent situation that requires a large number of law enforcers. Such an arrangement will ensure that the officers are to take some time to rest from their demanding jobs reducing cases of fatigue and stress


The study has dealt with the ethical practices in shift work by focusing on the law enforcement industry where ethical practices in shift determine how police officers will be able to perform their duties without creating any ethical dilemmas. The essay has been able to highlight the various codes of ethics that are used to govern shift work where employers are meant to ensure that their employees work for regular and predictable hours and they are able to rest especially if they are faced with a heavy workload. The ethical practices that have been identified for shift work employees include taking predictable breaks from their work schedules to ensure that they do not become fatigued or overwhelmed by working for consecutive hours. Shift work employees should also be provided with safe working environments to limit the number of hazards that they can be exposed to. The ethical practices for police officers who work in shift work based on the study involve providing them with predictable and regular work hours so that they can meet the demanding nature of their work. Predictable work hours will also ensure that they have time for their family and friends and also for various aspects of their personal life. Because the nature of shift work is demanding, the study has been able to ascertain that ethical dilemmas which arise during police work can be effectively dealt with as long as the employer is able to design the work shifts to reduce the incidences of work shift ethical dilemmas.


Australian Medical Association (2005). National code of practice: hours of work, shiftwork and rostering. Web.

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