Guarding Against Fatigue

By Guillermo Guevara Penso

When I accepted the position of Security Manager at the Escuela Campo Alegre, (the American International School) in Caracas, Venezuela, one of my initial challenges was to reduce, if not eliminate, the extraordinary number of illegal entries into the facility during the nighttime hours.

My first thought and strategy was, of course, increase the number of night shift guards to patrol the perimeter of the facility.  I accomplished this by having guards spread out all over the school perimeter where they walked all night with an hour break to eat and rest. The shift rotation during the week for each guard was three dayshifts, three nightshifts, and one day off. 

Increasing the guard staff seemed like a simple enough solution. And maintaining the existing shift rotation schedule and night shift duties seemed logical to better protect the perimeter.  But in actuality, this routine created a myriad of problems that I had never considered with regards to guards working the night shift and it had nothing to do with security.  It had to do with health, wellbeing, and psychological damage.

Complaints from guards began rolling in and the list was endless.  They complained that they were extremely fatigued from all the walking. And with the existing schedule, providing only one day off, they were tired. They complained of headaches, stomach problems, increased blood pressure, and general discomfort.  One guard was even hospitalized for more than a month when his blood pressure rose dangerously.

In addition to the health problems, the fatigue affected their performance in a gradual and transitory way.  While their performance was probably affected during the day shift, it was especially apparent during the night shift.  The guards left lights on, classrooms were left unlocked, windows were left open, water was left running, fire extinguishers went without service, and emergency lights were burned out.  Their reactions were certainly slower in planning and decision-making.  In urgent situations, requiring rapid and precise decisions, the responses were poor, sluggish, and uncoordinated.

Emotionally we saw frustration and irritability among the guards that emerged as fatigue increased.  Incidents of friction among guards and lack of cooperation and teamwork were related to night shift work fatigue. As guards became more tired, they also became more reactive to situations, responding with apprehension, fear, and irritability. The guards even suffered from some depression due to their bodies’ inability to adjust to the night shift duties.

Over the period of a year and a half, as guards could not find effective ways to cope with the stress and fatigue of the shift work, their morale deflated, which led to absenteeism and huge turnovers.  We lost an unbelievable total of 230 guards in that year and a half.  The effects also went into family and social life, with guards feeling out of touch with “normal” daytime society and peers. 

It was apparent to me that this trial and error method of solving the initial problem had caused other problems.  Now my challenge was to secure the school during the nighttime hours, re-work the shifts schedules, and educate guards about healthful sleeping and eating habits.  They had to be convinced that they could work shifts and maintain alertness and high performance.

The first thing I did was to change the shift schedule.  I instituted a rotating schedule of 2-day-on dayshifts, 2 nightshifts, and 2 days off, and then it starts all over again. This alone improved the guards’ attitudes. Afterwards, we began trying to change some of their habits to improve their quality of life.

It’s common knowledge that humans require about eight hours of sleep each night for peak performance. After interviewing every single guard on the force, 10 in all,  they told us  “they slept an average of only 5 1/2 hours.” During a week’s shift, this amounts to several hours of sleep deprivation. Also, it is not uncommon for our guards to work overtime al least one hour per week keeping them awake even longer.

Circadian Rhythm and Health

Betina Fernández Báez, MD, Internal Medicine at the Guarenas/Guatire General Hospital provided the following information about rest.

Light has nonoptical effects on the human body, especially physiological regulations such as: biological rhythm, hormonal activity, and behavior. In other words, light synchronizes our biological rhythm.

Our body has many systems that work in a cyclical pattern. The duration of these cycles vary: the heart’s last seconds; the REM sleep cycle last 90 minutes; the circadian cycle lasts 24 hours; and there are monthly and yearly reproductive cycles as well. Of all these, the Circadian cycle has the most biomedical importance.

These rhythms are the result of functional changes in each hour, involving two important systems: Endocrine and the Autonomous Nervous System. For example, cortisone produced in the endocrine system controls  blood pressure and heartbeat according to the body’s needs. It is of great importance to consider these patterns when treating and controlling diseases. The day-night cycle is another in the human body that follows a circadian rhythm. Physical and intellectual performance is not uniform during the day—there is a decrease during the nocturnal hours.

It is more noticeable each day, that in this modern era, there is a gap between biological rhythm and daily routine and demands.

Lack of nocturnal sleep can alter mental and physical activity and it negatively influences many aspects of performance, leading to slow reaction, inadequate reactions, memory loss, and slow cognition. These are important to be considered in shift work. The biological rhythm is affected in the night and by rotating shifts, which is related to severe sleepiness during the night shift and interferes with performance during the day shift, as well as changes in blood pressure and heart beat. These changes are linked to a higher risk of accidents and chronic diseases, such as hypertension, due to long periods of wakefulness, incomplete sleep, and fatigue. Add to them emotional tension due to the alterations of social relationships in domestic life. A well structured shift schedule and regular and complete medical evaluations to control chronic diseases can balance these adverse effects. In other words, optimize the shift work structure; make time for daytime and nighttime rest and for leisure.

In conclusion, light is not only important for seeing—recognizing objects, surfaces, and space—but also regulates our daily rhythm and routines, and therefore maintains health and wellbeing. While worker productivity matters, worker health and quality of life are paramount.

In addition to a rest strategy, we developed three more interrelated ways to encourage better health.  These included:

1.       Environment

2.       Family understanding and cooperation

3.       Diet and hydration.


It was apparent that the guards were not making the best use of their down time.  Admittedly, scheduling only one-day off didn’t work and it was changed.  But the guards were encouraged to make adjustments at home. Applicants were given a realistic job preview prior to hiring through orientation and training on how to adjust to shift work. Spouses also received education regarding the demands on family members.  

Sleep was the essential ingredient for both shift adjustment and a harmonious home life. We recommended guards sleep at least 4 to 6 hours in a dark and silent room after the shift is over. The bedroom should be reserved for sleeping or intimacy, not entertainment or work. If the bedroom was close to the street, it was beneficial to try to sleep in a quieter location in the house. Opaque curtains were also suggested to completely block out light. Workers were also advised to keep the room as cool as possible because people sleep better at lower temperatures.

Family Understanding and Cooperation

It is also important that the family understands the stress of working the night shift.  Guards were told to request that the house be kept as quiet as possible.  Turn off the ringer on the telephone; keep the TV off or very low.  The entire family needs to have a discussion concerning the problems of working changing shifts and the importance of being well rested.

 Diet and Hydration

As important as it is to maintain a healthy body working daytime jobs, night shifts raise the need for better care and planning. Our bodies have different rhythms at night and simple adaptations of the diet can help improve health and avoid future health problems. Patricia da Silva Moreira Barros, MD Pediatrics, provided the following suggestions.

1.       Avoid eating a large meal before going to work

Small, frequent meals during the day of the shift keep the body better balanced for the hours of work to come.  The meal before work should contain whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and some lean protein. At night, digestion is slower, so easy-to-digest foods are preferable.

2.       Eat small, nutritionally balanced snacks throughout the shift

Snacks are important for being energized and fueled. Plan for a snack every 3-4 hours, choosing complex carbohydrates combined with protein and some amount of healthy fat. Suggestions of nutritious snacks are fruit, low fat yogurt, chunky soups, dried fruit, nuts, grain crackers, sandwiches with salads, dried beans and peas, cereal, peanut butter with whole grain bread or cracker, cheese, and vegetables. This will decrease the need for caffeinated beverages and the feeling of fatigue. Eat lightly between 10 pm and 6 am. Maintaining regular eating patterns without skipping meals is very important.

3.       Cut off caffeine at midnight

Caffeine lasts 5 to 7 hours in the body, which may lead to difficulty sleeping after a shift is over. It is better to take the last caffeinated beverage, coffee, or soda at 12pm or 1 am, or at least 6 hours before your planned time to sleep. During the following hours, drink water, juices, milk, or herbal tea. Excessive caffeine causes headache, anxiety and nervousness, digestive distress, dehydration, and it can increase blood pressure.

4.       Common mistakes

Avoid: Too much caffeine, low intake of water or other fluids, high-fat snacking, infrequent eating during the day, over eating at night, lack of exercise, and not getting enough sleep. These can generate fatigue, and a greater susceptibility to illnesses. Be careful: Poor eating leads to malnutrition, indigestion, heartburn, stomachache, excess (or loss) of appetite, and changes in body weight.

5.       Avoid heavy meals before going to sleep

It is better to have a healthy snack around 3 or 4 am and then have a light breakfast before going to sleep. It will avoid sleeplessness and indigestion and ensure good energy recovery after a whole night’s work.

6.       Additional recommendations

Skipping good rest after the night shift is sure to lead to health problems in the long run. A regular workout keeps the body strong for work, more energized and prepared, and helps reduce the risk of cardiac disease and high blood pressure. During the shift, plan for breaks and some exercise, and vary work activities to avoid fatigue and boredom. Plan meals ahead and shop for groceries to guarantee a variety of healthy food before, during, and after the shift.

Rested, Revived, Resilient

After implementing a new rotation schedule and advising guards on ways to improve their quality of life, both the day shift and the night shift are functioning better.  This new system has been in effect for seven months and instead of complaints the guards report, “Our new schedules have given us ‘mini-vacations’.  We now have two days off which allows us sufficient time to enjoy a more normal family and social life.” 

These schedules were attractive to younger and older guards because they found it easier to recover from the fatigue. So far, we have found after guards adjusted to night work during a period of four to six weeks, it is easier to maintain good performance with minimal fatigue. In general, overtime was minimized whenever possible, and when unavoidable, it was limited to one additional hour per shift.

In this decade, the need for security has increased for reasons never expected.  The perception of the security force has changed from a little respected position to a position of critical importance.  Therefore, it is vital that those in security management recognize the need for adjustments and reevaluations in order to promote the most effective and professional group possible. 

Understanding the needs of the night shift is merely one-way.  As campus security has evolved through the decades, the need for guards to work nights has also increased. To manage this inconvenience we adopted three intertwined solutions: Scheduling night shifts that respect the human body’s biological clock; educating families to shift-proof their homes and lifestyle; and training the guards to adopt effective sleep and shift adjustment skills.

The result: Alert, content, and efficient guards that can protect the school’s students, faculty, and staff from those who want in for all the wrong reasons.




Workforce Scheduling Guarding Against Fatigue

Your entire article demonstrates what can happen when guards are over worked.  If the above describes your your organization, our workforce scheduling software is the answer. 


I'm glad you managed to make

I'm glad you managed to make things better. The security of a school is very important. And the fact that you could do this there, in Caracas, Venezuela, shows that you're really good in what you're doing. Congratulations and keep up the good work!


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