As a manager, part of your job is to put the best schedule in place for your employees—but that task can get tricky once your scheduling needs progress beyond the standard 9-5 workday.
As your schedule becomes more complex, the more worries you have. Employees may complain about their assigned shifts or their mental and physical health may suffer from working at night. And without proper planning, one absence can send the entire schedule into chaos.
How do you choose the right schedule type—and prepare for what can go wrong—when the nature of your work requires a rotating shift?
In this article, we’ll go over:
- The definition of a rotating shift
- Which industries rely on this scheduling system
- The types and specific scheduling options of rotating shifts
- Benefits and disadvantages of rotational shift work
- A few tips for setting up your own rotating shift system
With the right preparation, you will create a rotational scheduling system that benefits your organization while also protecting your team’s health and productivity.
What Is a Rotating Shift?
In general, there are two types of work schedules:
- A fixed schedule, in which you go to work at the same time every workday. This category includes the standard work schedule of 9 AM to 5 PM Monday-Friday, but can also include non-standard fixed shift times, like 4 PM to 12 AM Tuesday-Saturday.
- A rotating shift, in which you work different shifts on a cycling basis. For example, a paramedic might work from 6 AM to 2 PM one day, then 2 PM to 10 PM the next, then 10 PM to 6 AM the next day. A factory employee might work a month of evening shifts, then work morning shifts the next month.
Rotating shifts (otherwise known as rotational shift work) can be of different lengths, and the workplace schedule might take breaks for nights and weekends or run continuously.
If a workplace’s schedule consists of changing shifts of workers, that workplace is using a rotating shift system.
Usually, rotating shift lengths fall between eight and 12 hours. Most workplaces that are open 24-7 split the day into three shifts: 1st/day, 2nd/afternoon, and 3rd/overnight.
Some businesses also use a so-called “swing shift,” which helps bridge the transition between two of the other shifts. Swing shift workers supplement the work during peak business times or while other employees take their meal breaks.
Industries and Professions Using Rotating Shifts
In the United States, about 25% of workers use rotating shift work. It’s common in:
Any workplace that needs workers beyond the standard 9 AM to 5 PM, like health care, hospitality, transportation, or other services.
Industrial workplaces operating complex machinery on a continual basis. The continuous operation might be necessary for cost-effective reasons (it’s cheaper to avoid shutting down and starting up heavy factory machinery, for instance) or where technical processes can’t be interrupted without damaging the product.
Rotating shifts are also customary in places where employees depend on tips because managers want to give everyone a chance to work peak business hours.
Some common workplaces where you might see rotating shifts are:
- Hospitals and health care facilities
- Protective and emergency services – police, fire, ambulance, etc.
- Customs & immigration
- Transportation services – trucking, airlines
- Industrial cleaners
- Utility company repair
- Road work crews
- Business process outsourcing call centers, customer service, etc.
Types of Rotating Shifts
The variations in styles of rotating shift work match the variation in types of workplace. Each business has different needs, processes, and team sizes, meaning that rotating shifts will look a little different at each place.
The types of shiftwork differ according to schedule type, shift length, and rotation style.
Shift Scheduling Styles
- Traditional rotating schedule: all crews rotate shifts weekly.
- Slow rotating schedule: like a traditional rotating schedule, but crews change shifts less often than every week. Many schedules call for rotation every month or even every year.
Standard Shift Lengths
8-hour shifts: the 24-hour workday consists of three equal parts, where employees rotate which shift they work each day. This system is varied enough that employees tend to be more productive and avoid burnout.
12-hour shifts: the 24-hour workday consists of two 12-hour shifts. This system is very popular with management and employees because scheduling is more straightforward, and employees get more days off of work. However, 12-hour shifts can contribute to employee fatigue and decreased productivity.
All-shift rotation: this structure requires all employees to take a turn working every shift. Sometimes a certain shift is unpopular (like the overnight shift), so it can help create a sense of fairness among employees, not to mention foster team spirit, to require everyone to rotate through all of the shift types.
Two-shift rotation (or oscillating rotation): this system involves one fixed shift while the other two rotate. Usually, the fixed shift works overnight, while the day and evening shifts cycle. This system is more straightforward and avoids complaints from employees who don’t want to work nights.
However, the night team may lack management presence and training opportunities, and they’re likely to feel isolated from the rest of the crew.
Partial rotation: similar to a two-shift rotation, in that part of the crew rotates while the rest stay on a fixed shift. On a partial rotation schedule, though, more of the crew are fixed than are rotating.
Rotating Shift Schedule Examples
Over the years, various preferred rotating shift schedules have come to the forefront in management practice. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different styles in order to understand what scheduling mechanism will work best for your team.
Let’s take a closer look at how they work below.
The Pitman Shift Schedule
This type of scheduling gives employees every other weekend off, which enables them to participate in at least some family and social events during “normal” hours.
Shifts are usually 12 hours long, with four teams in rotation. Employees usually don’t work more than three days in a row. The pattern of shifts to days off is usually:
- Two shifts on, followed by two days off
- Three shifts on, followed by two days off
- Two shifts on, followed by three days off
Once the two-week cycle is complete, day workers switch to the night shift and vice versa.
The DuPont Shift Schedule
Like the Pitman schedule, the DuPont involves four teams working 12-hour shifts—but this time, the pattern is a bit more complex. It rotates from day shift to night shift on a four-week cycle:
- Four night shifts, then three days off
- Three day shifts, then one day off
- Three night shifts, then three days off
- Four day shifts, then seven days off
Though the schedule can be a bit hectic, employees appreciate the DuPont system because of the guaranteed weeklong break at the end of each cycle.
One thing to note: with the DuPont schedule, employees will work more than 40 hours during some weeks of the 4-week cycle. Managers must pay careful attention to overtime when using this system.
The 6-4 6-4 6-4 Shift Work Schedule
If you’re looking for a shift schedule that’s a bit less complex, the 6-4 6-4 6-4 system might be for you. Simply put, five teams of employees will work 10-hour shifts, and each employee will work six days, then have four days off.
Another variation of this schedule would be the 4-3 schedule, which involves six teams in overlapping 10-hour shifts in the pattern of four days on, three days off.
The 24-48 Shift Work Schedule
Another simple rotating schedule is the 24-48 system, which involves three teams rotating working 24-hour shifts and then having 48 hours off. Many firefighters and medical professionals use this scheduling system.
If your work doesn’t involve a decent amount of downtime, though, keep in mind that employees sometimes find it very difficult to adjust to such a long shift—and productivity can suffer.
Comparing Fixed Shifts and Rotating Shifts
Fixed shifts and rotating shifts both fall into the “shift work” category. Much like it sounds, the difference between them comes down to whether your shift time stays the same or if it changes on a regular basis.
Let’s say an employee works Monday-Friday from 9-5. If they are not asked to work any other shifts, they’re working a fixed shift.
If, on the other hand, their shift changes (be it day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month), now they’re likely working a rotating shift.
Some workplaces tend to need rotating shifts—like hospitals, which need experienced staff present at all hours. Other environments thrive better under a fixed shift.
Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of implementing a rotating shift schedule in your workplace.
Benefits of Rotating Shifts
A rotating shift schedule allows for an even distribution of work and a sense of fairness—which fosters team spirit. While not everyone prefers a rotating schedule, many employees and managers appreciate its many benefits, including:
1. Flexibility for Employees’ Schedules
With unusual work hours, employees sometimes have a bit more flexibility to care for children, go to school, or just run everyday errands that might otherwise be difficult during normal business hours (like schedule doctor appointments or go to the bank).
Many employees like the flexibility of a rotating shift schedule—as long as they receive their schedule with plenty of advanced notice.
2. Employees Tend to Be More Well-Rounded
Since they work at different times of day, employees will have a wider experience performing a variety of tasks. Many important meetings and training sessions also happen during the day, so rotating shifts help each employee have a chance to access those on a regular basis.
Also, working rotating shifts helps keep the work fresh for employees. They’ll be less likely to become stuck in a rut because their hours, shifts, and work experiences will be continually changing.
3. Fair Workload and Better Team Spirit
Implementing a rotating shift can help distribute the heavier workload of rush hour and the burden of disrupted sleep during the overnight shifts.
All employees share in the benefits of certain times (like dinner rush in a restaurant, when tips are more plentiful) and the disadvantages of others (like very late or very early shifts).
And of course, using a rotating shift schedule can allow all employees an occasional weekend off.
Employees will no longer grumble that “one shift does all the work” or that they’re getting the short end of the stick.
Everyone takes turns both at taking that “bad shift,” and working their preferred time. It fosters a sense of team solidarity. Even the senior staff join the rotation, making the system feel fair and inclusive.
When the entire staff is exposed to each other and all environments in the workplace, it can make for heightened team respect and a more well-rounded knowledge of the company.
Disadvantages of Rotating Shifts
While a rotating shift can benefit your team’s performance and your strategy as a manager, there are drawbacks as well.
Most of these downsides affect the employees individually, and some can be life-and-death—so it’s imperative to understand the risks of rotating shifts to mitigate them the best you can.
1. Lack of Consistency
A rotating shift schedule can provide a great deal of flexibility, but the flip side of that benefit is the drawback: there’s usually a lack of consistency from week to week.
When you’re on a rotating schedule, you’re likely to be working nights sometimes and days other times. You may not always have weekends off or be able to develop a daily routine.
While the constant change appeals to some, others who thrive on routine might suffer.
2. Long Shifts Can Cause Accidents or Low Productivity
Many rotation schedules depend on longer shifts than average, such as 10-, 12-, or even 24-hour shifts. Any shift over 10 hours is considered an “extended” workday, and there’s some concern in the scientific community over whether these long shifts are ideal.
Working long hours without a break can easily lead to exhaustion or an overwhelmed state, which can affect employees’ productivity rates — and, even more importantly, lead to safety concerns.
After all, many catastrophes like plane crashes and nuclear power plant incidents have been attributed to overtired workers.
When implementing a rotating shift schedule, it’s imperative to practice safety measures to guard against employee fatigue and catastrophic human error.
3. Your Work-Life Balance Can Suffer
Working irregular and ever-changing hours makes it difficult to have a normal work-life balance. A 2018 study of nurses working rotating shifts in Lebanon showed that more than 80% believed their family and social lives were suffering due to their work schedules.
Employees who work the night shift, for example, will not be able to attend many family or friend events that take place in the evening. They’ll also be catching up on sleep during the day when the rest of their social network is awake.
While one of the advantages of a rotating shift schedule is avoiding constant nighttime work, it’s still difficult to adjust to being on the night shift some of the time and being on a day shift for the rest.
4. It Can Cause Lack of Sleep and Disrupt Your Circadian Rhythms
Due to the irregular and often after-hours nature of rotational scheduling, employees often struggle to get enough sleep.
Whether it be because they worked a night shift but still want to be awake when their family is up, or just due to the difficult nature of adjusting to the ever-changing work hours, lack of sleep can be a problem.
When your sleep cycle is thrown off, it negatively affects your circadian rhythm.
The disruption of your body clock can seriously affect your health. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified night shift work in 2007 as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
According to a study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, night shift workers and workers who follow a rotating shift schedule have a higher chance of being injured on the job.
Tips for Setting up a Rotating Shift
As a manager, it’s important to take the many pros and cons of rotating shift work into account when designing the right schedule for your company. Always focus on clear, consistent communication and be flexible in meeting your employees’ needs.
Use these basic guidelines:
- Give plenty of advance notice of shift rosters and overcommunication of any changes.
- Allocate at least 24 hours off between sets of night shifts to give time for healthy sleep
- Practice flexibility: allow employees to swap shifts, prioritize their preferences, etc.
- When determining shifts, rotate forward from day to evening to night. Their circadian rhythms will adjust better to this more “natural” progression.
- Pay attention to the work environment, too: healthy lighting and ventilation, access to rest areas (if possible), and a healthy cafeteria can mitigate the negative health effects of rotational shift work.
- Educate employees on the importance of healthy nutrition and self-care while working rotating shifts.
How Long Should the Rotation Period Be?
The optimal rotation period, or the amount of time spent on one shift before switching to the next, is not cut and dried. It really comes down to your workplace and what works best for your employees.
One-week rotations are most common, but since it usually takes about seven days for circadian rhythms to adjust, an employee might be getting used to the night shift just when they rotate out of it.
Longer rotations might help workers adjust to the night shift better; however, they might be trying to keep “normal” hours on their days off, canceling out any adaptation. Longer night shift rotations might also increase employees’ feelings of social isolation.
Shorter rotations (two or three days) might help avoid circadian rhythm issues since the body doesn’t have to readjust to a new normal every week or two. Also, each week will include free time for social and family interaction.
Use the Right Tool to Schedule Employee Shifts
As with any administrative task, the right tool for the job will make it much more manageable.
Many managers make do without scheduling software, but if your team uses rotating shifts, the odds are that a handwritten schedule on an index card just isn’t going to cut it for long.
If your employees are to effectively manage their own lives around a changing schedule, they’ll need clear, advanced communication and a consistent, error-free schedule.
Our digital scheduling software takes the guesswork out of scheduling by:
- Being easily accessible by everyone; employees can view it at any time
- Quickly showing who is available to cover an unexpected change in schedule or fill in for a sick employee
- Being simple to use, with visual functionality and easy team notification options
Making Rotating Shift Work for You
While rotating shifts have their drawbacks, sometimes they’re a necessary evil.
Many places of work—such as industrial facilities, hospitals, fire stations, or call centers—simply need employees present at all hours. Rotational shift work is sometimes the only answer.
When that’s the case, it’s important to understand all the available rotating shift styles, so you can design the system that works best for your team.
It is also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the benefits and disadvantages of rotating shifts so that you can support your employees’ health and productivity more effectively.