Q&A: What Is Shift Work? (With Types and Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 31 August 2021

Shift work is a way of working outside of the typical workday pattern to ensure a company can remain operational and offer services 24 hours a day and seven days a week. In the UK, around four million people are shift workers, which is about 14% of the total workforce. For a lot of people, working from 9am to 5pm simply isn't convenient and many companies need staff to work in shifts over the whole 24-hour period. In this article, we look at what is shift work, what types of shift work are available and what are the benefits and challenges of working shift hours.

Related: How To Be Flexible at Work (With Steps and Tips)

What is shift work?

The answer to 'What is shift work?' is a series of shifts that encompass 24 hours. Shift work allows a business to operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week, so staff must work at different times. The shift work definition refers to any work that occurs outside of the usual working day period, 7am and 6pm, but there are many different types of shift work, including split shifts, night shifts and early morning shifts. Some employees might need to work an early shift to ensure deliveries are ready to go and in many care homes, night shifts are a regular part of the job.

When does shift work occur?

Shifts work means working different periods at different times and usually refers to anything outside of the standard Monday to Friday working week. In workplaces like hospitals, care homes or warehouses, shift work is crucial and every member of the team has to work a range of shifts. Shift work includes carrying out all of the usual duties associated with your role, but with a more flexible and non-conventional schedule. Some of the industries which rely on shift work include:

  • Healthcare

  • Security

  • Hospitality

  • Public services

  • Social care

  • Transport

  • Manufacturing

Most sectors provide opportunities for employees to work in shifts. You may also work shifts if your industry is busier at certain times than others, for example, during harvest times in agriculture or during the Christmas period in a retail setting. Seasonal workers often have to work shifts, meaning their hours change during the year and require greater flexibility.

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What are the types of shift work?

There are many different types of shift work, including day shifts, split shifts, night shifts and rotating shift schedules. This is usually set by the employer, but it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with the different types of shifts you might have to work. As businesses expand their production, offerings or services, more and more workers in a growing number of sectors are engaging in shift work. In large organisations which provide essential services, like the NHS, thousands of employees work shifts every week.

Night shifts

Night shifts can be a good option if you're a night owl, have daytime commitments or you prefer to avoid busy commuting times. There are a wide range of night working options available. According to the UK government, staff who work at least three hours during the night (between 11pm and 6am) are night workers. There are also limitations on how many night shifts you can work and night workers must not work more than eight hours in a 24-hour period.

Evening shifts

In many industries, evening or twilight shifts start after 5pm and cover busy periods, events or serving times. In general, evening shifts fall between 6pm and 10pm and are common in the hospitality industry, music industry and retail. Working evening shifts can be a great option for students and those looking to boost their income with an additional job.

Early morning shifts

The early morning shift is essential in many industries, especially logistics, farming and manufacturing. An early morning shift usually falls between the hours of 4am and 8am and they can also be part of a split shift pattern. Many domestic staff, such as cleaners, might work early morning shifts.

Day shifts

A day shift refers to working in daylight hours, usually between 9am and 5pm, but with some flexibility. Day shift hours can be on a weekly or monthly basis, covering standard hours of operation. In the retail sector, day shifts are common and can vary depending on opening hours.

Double day shifts

A double day or two-shift working pattern comprises two successive shifts. For example, working 6am to 2pm and then 2pm to 10pm. These shifts are often known as 'earlies' or 'lates'. These are often alternated weekly and can be a common feature of working on hospital wards or during busy periods.

Split shifts

Split shifts are common in jobs where the work is split up over the day, with a break between the two shifts. For example, an office cleaner might work from 6am to 9am and then work from 3pm to 7pm. If you are working split shifts, it does give you the ability to make appointments, provide childcare or rest between shifts. With split shifts, it's important to rest, as you might not get a paid break.

What are rotating shift patterns?

If you are starting a new role with a rotating shift pattern, you may work different shift times or different workdays from week to week. There are several types of rotating work schedules, including a '9/80' work schedule where a two-week period includes eight nine-hour shifts, one eight-hour shift and one day off. Some shift workers use flexible time, where they can vary their work shifts as long as they work their set hours. The Dupont schedule spans four weeks and sees workers rotate between day and night shifts.

What are the benefits of shift work?

If you're considering shift work, there are a number of benefits, including greater flexibility and the opportunity to fit work around your schedule and family commitments. It may also be an essential part of your career progression; for example, if you are working as a junior doctor, you need to have experience working night shifts. Most shift workers receive a premium for working shifts to compensate for the potential disruption, which could be an hourly flat rate addition, annual cash allowances or additional payments. Other benefits include:

  • More flexible working hours

  • Quieter periods

  • Daytime availability

  • Better pay due to unsociable hours

  • Varied work

  • Less commuting time

  • More working hours available

What are the challenges of shift work?

Shift work isn't for everyone, so it's important to make sure you look after your physical and mental health if you're working unusual shifts. Some people find that working on a rotating shift schedule can affect their sleep and performance. Make sure you consider the fact that shift work could mean:

  • Less transport availability

  • Sleep problems like shift work disorder

  • Disruptions to family life

  • Difficulties adjusting to rotating shift patterns

  • Less certainty when planning ahead

Most employers who use a shift work pattern are aware of this and ensure workers are not overtired or working too much. If you're struggling with shift work, it can be a good idea to try different shifts or talk to your colleagues about what works best for them. It's important to talk to your employee about what shifts are available and if you are having any difficulties adapting to shift work.

What jobs require shift work?

Shift work is a common practice in a wide range of industries, from night shifts for security guards to early morning shifts in a supermarket. Businesses and organisations which provide constant care or services need their team to work a variety of different shifts. From hotel receptionists to trauma surgeons to train drivers, there are thousands of shift workers who make sure we all have access to the services we need 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Some of the jobs which most frequently require shift work include:

  • Registered nurses

  • Air traffic controllers

  • Chefs

  • Paramedics

  • Food manufacturers

  • Delivery drivers

  • Caterers

  • Security guards

  • Military personnel

  • Hospitality staff

  • Firefighters

  • Lorry drivers

  • Flight attendants

Related: How To Become a Delivery Driver: A Step-by-Step Guide

What are tips for making shift work manageable?

Shift work can be a real advantage, providing greater freedom and flexibility with the security of a long-term contract. Many people find taking a range of different shifts is a good way to experience the varied working environments and career options available, especially if you're new to the company. If you're working shifts, there are ways you can make it work to your benefit. Keep in mind the following tips for working shifts:

  • Maintain good sleeping habits when you can

  • Try to avoid frequently rotating shifts

  • Make a sleep schedule

  • Take all of your breaks

  • Get to know your colleagues

  • Know what shifts suit you best

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