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Not Your 9–5
8 Things About Shift Work Most People Don't Know
Adobe Stock
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Where do organizations that need coverage every hour of the day turn? That’s where shift work comes in. Through this model, as implied by its name, employees work in shifts of a certain number of hours, such as eight, before another employee takes over for a different shift. For example, one employee might work a morning shift between 5 a.m. and 1 p.m., before another employee takes over to work between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Shift work allows companies to operate 24/7 without gaps in coverage. Which industries use the model — and what are the benefits and drawbacks?

Industries where shift work is common

While shift work could be applied in a wide range of industries, you’re more likely to find it in some over others. Some industries, occupations and facilities where shift work is most common include:

• Law enforcement

• Healthcare

• Retail

• Factories and warehouses

• Restaurants and hospitality

• Grocery stores, convenience stores and bodegas

• Security

• Emergency services (police, firefighters, EMTs and others)

• Emergency hotlines

• Customer service and call centers

• Nursing homes

• Prisons

• Media outlets

• Bartending

• Security

• Transportation

What are the pros and cons of shift work?

Pros

1. Flexibility.

With a shift schedule, it’s much easier to trade shifts with colleagues and make up time later, in case you have personal or other responsibilities to handle. That means you might not have to use your PTO every time you have a doctor’s appointment.

2. Convenience.

Because there are several different shift options available, you can request the one that best fits into your schedule. For example, if you’re a night owl, you can opt for a night shift, leaving your day free, and vice versa. Moreover, workers who commute can avoid rush hour if their shifts fall outside of normal business hours. 

3. Time to yourself

Given that a shift work schedule typically doesn’t align with the majority of the workforce’s schedule, you may find that you have more freedom to run errands, go to the gym, go shopping and more while avoiding peak hours and the after-work or early-morning congestions. 

4. Pay

Employees who work less-desirable shifts are often compensated at a higher rate than those who work more standard shifts. So, if you’re flexible in terms of when you can and want to work, you can opt for, say, a graveyard shift, when the pay might be better.

Cons

5. Health and safety concerns

Sleep issues, indigestion, and high blood pressure are issues that are sometimes associated with working alternate shifts. Shift work can disrupt habits and patterns that are typically well-established in adulthood, and the inconsistent schedule for eating, sleeping and performing other tasks can take a toll on the body.

Additionally, some shifts can pose some safety risks. For example, people who work the night shift might be concerned about being out alone in the dark.

6. Abnormal schedule

Working irregular shifts may cause you to miss out on gatherings and events with family and friends. Even low-key activities such as eating dinner with your family may be disrupted by an evening shift. Sometimes, you may not be able to choose your shift, which could interfere with your personal and social life. You also won’t have a fixed schedule; you may work a morning shift one day and an evening shift the next, which can wreak havoc on your sleep hygiene — not to mention your social life

7. Repetition.

Many shift workers work alone, often without the typical daytime bustle and conversation. This can become monotonous. Since shifts generally fall outside of typical working hours, shift workers may not even be able to go get meals, since nothing is open. 

8. Productivity and work imbalance.

Since circumstances are different depending on the time of day, the work may be more or less challenging and demanding during different shifts. Moreover, some workers may be tired or hungry depending on their shift, which can impact their productivity; someone who has an early morning shift and didn’t get much sleep the night before, for example, is unlikely to accomplish as much as an afternoon worker who got a full night of sleep. 

Laws about shift work

There are no laws specific to shift work. However, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) mandates that nonexempt workers must receive at least 1.5 times their regular compensation rate for hours worked more than 40 per work week (this includes short breaks, although longer meal breaks do not factor into working time and may be unpaid).

Employees who are able to sleep during shifts at the discretion of their employer must be compensated if the time is not considered a break, unless the shift lasts for 24 hours or more. If the employer reduces the employee’s pay for sleeping time under the latter circumstance, the break must be scheduled in advance and last between five and eight hours, and the employer must provide a facility for this purpose. 

There are no laws limiting the length of a shift or time during which an employee is on call. Employers and industries may have additional rules concerning the amount of time employees may work without a break.

FAQs

What is considered shift work?

Shift work is performed outside of the standard 9–5 work schedule according to designated shifts, such as morning or evening. Employees may work standard shifts or rotate among different ones. 

Is shift work bad for your health?

A study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine suggests that shift work may lead to impaired functioning of the brain. Shift work has also been linked to an increased risk for:

• Cardiovascular disease

• Insomnia

• Gastrointestinal problems

• Diabetes

• Obesity

• Heart attack

• Depression

• Some cancers

• and other diseases

What are the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) affects people who work during times that coincide with normal sleeping periods. Symptoms include:

• Excessive sleepiness

• Insomnia

• Irritability

• Depression

• Lack of energy

• Headaches

You can learn more about SWSD through the National Sleep Foundation. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should consult a physician.

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