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Rotating Work Shifts And Schedules, Explained
Adobe Stock / Drobot Dean
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Taylor Tobin
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While certain professional fields adhere to a traditional Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm work schedule for most employees, others — like construction, police work and medicine — fundamentally require staffing 24 hours a day and seven days a week. 

If you choose to pursue any of these career paths, you’ll quickly become familiar with rotating schedules, also known as shift work. Intended to provide staffing at all hours while still giving employees adequate time off the clock, rotating shifts can be an excellent option for both part-time and full-time workers who need schedule flexibility. 

However, the lack of week-to-week consistency sometimes proves physically challenging, and shift employees must make a point of taking necessary self-care steps to acclimate themselves. 

Would a rotating work schedule be a manageable fit for your lifestyle? Read on for a complete explanation of the shift work model, its pros and cons and advice on how to make a rotating schedule work for you. 

What is a rotating schedule?

In most circumstances, a rotating schedule occurs when an employee works an established arrangement of shifts for a set period of time, then switches to a different arrangement of days and times. For instance, a shift worker with a rotating schedule might work five morning shifts from 8am to 5pm one week, then switch to the 4pm-12am “second shift” the following week and perhaps the 12am-8am shift the following week. Typically, rotating schedules are designed around three 8-hour shifts per day,  ensuring a full 24 hours’ worth of coverage without requiring any one employee to put in overtime hours on a regular basis. 

How does a “2-2-3 shift” work?

Some rotating schedules forgo the 8-hour shift model, opting instead for an arrangement of 12-hour shifts followed by a series of days off. One popular example, known as a “2-2-3 shift," involves employees working two 12-hour shifts, then taking two days off, then working three 12-hour shifts, then taking two days off, then working two shifts, then taking three days off, and so on. This model features a day shift (for example, 6am-6pm) and a night shift (i.e. 6pm-6am), with one group of workers assigned to cover each half of the 24-hour day. In some workplaces, employees will switch between day shifts and night shifts; you may spend one 2-2-3 week working from 6am-6pm, then during the next, you’ll be scheduled for 6pm-6am shifts. 

Pros and cons of rotating shifts

  • PRO: Consistent coverage

For fields in which this style of scheduling makes sense, rotating shifts allows employers to staff their business with the proper amount of personnel while still providing workers some much-needed time off after working 12-hour stretches for consecutive days. Work environments that require 24/7 staffing don’t always consider their employees’ need for proper downtime, but the rotating-shift model helps mitigate that problem.

  • CON: Potential disruptions to a healthy sleep schedule

Because most rotating schedules require employees to work the “graveyard shift” at least some of the time, maintaining consistent sleep patterns isn’t always possible. Therefore, these schedules can result in fatigued employees, which can negatively affect both morale and productivity.

  • PRO: If implemented correctly, rotating schedules can offer perks like long weekends on a semi-regular basis.

The benefits of a rotating schedule — for both employers and employees — rely on keeping weekly requirements at a manageable level. While some scheduling models may require workloads surpassing 40 hours per week, employees do receive overtime pay in those instances, and schedules like the 2-2-3 version allow workers to plan for 3-day weekends every other week.

  • CON: 12-hour shifts - like the ones often associated with rotating schedules - can compromise workers’ health.

Not all rotating schedules focus on 12-hour shifts, but iterations like the 2-2-3 model contribute to the popularity of these long days among companies and organizations that involve shift work. However, expecting employees to maintain focus and energy levels over a 12-hour period may be both unrealistic and, in some cases, hazardous to the health of these workers. 

According to the US National Library of Medicine, “Shift work and long work hours increase the risk for reduced performance on the job, obesity, injuries, and a wide range of chronic diseases. Fatigued [workers] also endanger others during their commute to and from work. The key strategy to reduce these risks is making sleep a priority in the employer’s systems for organizing work and in the [worker’s] personal life.”

How to cope with rotating shift work

Rotating schedules present plenty of challenges to affected employees, but prioritizing your own health and making moves to keep yourself well-rested can certainly make the situation easier to handle. To help you manage the tricky aspects of this schedule style, try the following tips:

  1. Even if your sleep quality hasn’t always been a top priority for you in the past, shift work necessitates a quick change of attitude on that front. Whether you choose to invest in a more comfortable bed, eliminate screens from your bedroom, give a white-noise machine a whirl, use a melatonin supplement, or any other method of sleep improvement, make a solid 6-8 hours of sleep a serious goal for yourself on a nightly basis.

  2. Should you work a shift schedule that gives you 3 consecutive days off on a regular basis, don’t fall back into erratic sleeping patterns during those nights. Stick to your work-week sleep patterns as much as you can, in order to keep your internal clock consistent.

  3. When working late-night shifts that involve long hours, make use of ride-shares and carpools whenever possible to prevent fatigue-based issues.

  4. If your workplace allows it, eat small, nutritionally-balanced meals throughout your shifts to keep you energized, alert and satiated.

  5. Schedule opportunities to visit with friends and family on your days off; the out-of-the-ordinary scheduling of shift work often has an isolating effect, so it’s important to make social connections when you can. 

  6. Engaging in moderate exercise shortly before your shift can keep your alertness on-point throughout the workday. If scheduling makes pre-shift exercise impossible, figuring out a consistent exercise plan that works for your lifestyle yields similar benefits. 

While rotating schedules can be tricky adjustments for employees accustomed to more traditional work weeks, the flexibility associated with this model can prove very useful, as long as shift employees take their own self-care seriously throughout the process. 

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