Case study: Co-op shines spotlight on the night shift

While it is most well-known for its chain of food retail shops The Co-operative Group also has funeral care, legal services and healthcare branches of its business. The latter, through its e-pharmacy, has also been providing prescription services to local pharmacies during the pandemic. 

The Co-operative is owned by its 4.6 million members. Its headquarters, One Angel Square in Manchester, is recognised as one of the most sustainable buildings in Europe due to its ‘outstanding’ rating from BREEAM, the built environment sustainability assessment model. The building’s cogeneration plant uses rapeseed oil to provide electricity and heat.

The HR team prides itself on having a diverse and talented group of colleagues. The group continuously runs employee wellbeing campaigns including a summer staycation initiative which highlighted the importance of taking time off, particularly in a year where international travel became very difficult. In the run-up to Christmas the group also ran a 12 Days of Togetherness Advent-style calendar with “small but meaningful rewards” offered to staff every day.


The problem 

Sarah Eglin is Co-op’s head of people, food stores and logistics. As part of this role, she oversees the wellbeing and management of 56,000 frontline staff for the group, of which nearly half are night shift workers. Night shift teams provide an all-hours service – critical to supply and demand both in and outside of the pandemic.

“As a convenience retailer, we’re part of sustaining a 24/7 culture in the UK and we know now, due to the many food platforms that have arisen during the pandemic, that people want to eat at all times of the day,”
she says.   

Ensuring consumers have the food they want, any time they want, often means opening early in the morning and significantly later in the evening compared with competitors. Eglin says: “The 24/7 culture we sustain socially and economically means that we also have to sustain a model of 24/7 employment across the organisation.”

Though the stores are not open for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the logistics and supply operations are. “We have to provide a significant amount of night shift work to keep that running,” says Eglin. “And because of that, we have to be responsible for the wellbeing of those workers.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the food store needed to put the wellbeing of its night shift workers first due to the extra pressure of heavy demands. In 2020, the World Health Organisation also classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen due to its disruption of the natural 24-hour circadian cycle.


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The method

In order to prioritise wellbeing, Co-op initiated a workshop for night shift workers called Night Club. The workshop provides staff with a space outside of the store and warehouse to learn about the importance of sleep and good sleep practice. It also links staff to sleep researchers so that they can put any questions to them in person.

The engagement programme is funded by research charity the Wellcome Trust, working in partnership with the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford University and designed by Liminal Space. Co-op is an employer partner of the project. 

Its aims are to create a healthier 24-hour working culture by bringing leading sleep research directly to night shift workers and major employers.

“Wellcome have been doing a lot of research and commissioned Oxford University and professor Russell Foster, to look into the impact of night-working on people’s health and wellbeing,” explains Eglin. The charity came to The Co-operative Group to carry out its study in real-time and put its findings into action. 

“Night Club consists of a container (a converted shipping container) that on the inside has areas of experience put together by sleep researchers,” says Eglin. “It’s all built on research and through high visibility colours, which have been sourced and generated from colleagues as well as Liminal. It educates them around nutrition, sleep health, diet and emotional wellbeing.

“There are also sleep doctors on hand, who are actively studying or have studied sleep research in the past.” 

The programme brings together research, policy and education around sleep in a practical environment for employees to engage in. “The programme is practical because it’s carried out in the middle of the night,” explains Eglin. “We shouldn’t expect night shift workers to learn in the daytime, on their one day off when their body is beginning to adjust back to its natural
sleep pattern.” 


The result 

Since Co-op’s night workers started using the Night Club programme, 70% say they have learnt something new about the importance of good sleep that they wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t taken part. 

A majority (65%) also said they would do something differently as a result of what they had learnt. For example, they said they would prioritise getting seven to eight hours of sleep over watching television. Eglin says: “For me, a lot the conversation that we’re having with employees is actually quite life changing. So, on a personal level, we’re really happy that those colleagues will start on a journey of change.”

Over 60 ‘sleep champions’ have so far been trained on the programme; they teach other colleagues on the importance of sleep for night workers, as well as overall tips on night shift wellbeing. Positioned in regional depots with a Night Club locker box, champions distribute sleep health resource materials to staff when needed. 

“They are really critical to the sustaining of the programme. We didn’t want it to be an initiative that doesn’t lead to change,” Eglin says.

“We also learnt about how lighting can help to regulate night shift workers. When they’re working against their circadian rhythm there is a certain lighting mode you can use in a work environment that can help employees stay more alert and we’re looking at using those in depots.” 

The Co-op is now also looking at fostering a two days off, five days on work pattern for night shift employees to improve their wellbeing. “If you have just one day off, by the time your body has adjusted to a regular sleeping pattern, you’re throwing yourself straight back into a different routine again in just 24 hours’ time,” says Eglin. 

“Night shift workers have been the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic and they deserve practical working routines.”


The full piece of the above appears in the January/February 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.