The term shift work refers to any work schedule that falls outside the hours of 7 am and 6 pm. Shift work can include evening, night, and early morning shifts, as well as fixed or rotating schedules. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 16% of wage and salary employees follow shift work schedules. This includes the 6% who work evening shifts and 4% who work night shifts.
While some employees enjoy working at night and prefer a non-traditional schedule, shift work does carry certain drawbacks. People who work night, early morning, or rotational shifts are at higher risk of developing shift work disorder and other sleep problems.
Which Jobs Normally Include Shift Work?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shift work schedules are divided into three general categories:
Evening: This category represents shifts that fall include the hours of 6pm to 10pm. Common occupations with evening shifts include:
- Servers and preparers, bartenders, and other food service employees
- Hairdressers, salon staff, personal trainers, and other personal care employees
- Retail store workers, real estate agents, cashiers, and other sales personnel
- Musicians, directors, broadcast technicians, and others who work in the arts, sports, healthcare, and media
Night: Night work includes any shifts that fall between the hours of 11pm and 3am. Common jobs that include night shifts include:
- Doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other healthcare practitioners
- Nursing assistants, psychiatric aides, veterinary assistants, and other healthcare support staff
- Firefighters, police officers, security guards, and other protective service employees
- Bakers, machinists, assembly line workers, and others who work in manufacturing and production
- Truck drivers, air traffic controllers, conveyor operators, and other transportation and material moving employees.
Early morning: An early morning shift includes the hours of 4am to 8am. Typical occupations that include these shifts include:
- Architects and engineers
- Carpenters, equipment operators, roofers, and other construction and extraction workers
- Farmers, fishing workers, and forestry personnel
- Aircraft and industrial machinery mechanics, telecommunications equipment repairers, and other installation, maintenance, and repair professionals
What Is a Rotating Shift?
Many shift work positions follow a fixed schedule with the same starting and ending times for each shift, as well as the same work days during the week. A rotating schedule, on the other hand, may include different shift times and/or different work days that vary from week to week.
The specific requirements of a rotating shift vary by employer. Some of the most common rotating schedules include:
- Continental: Workers rotate between day, evening, and night shifts for seven consecutive work days. Each shift lasts eight hours. After each block of seven work days, the employees receive two or three days off.
- Panama: The Panama schedule – also known as the 2-2-3 – follows a 14-day timetable. Employees work 12-hour shifts for two or three consecutive days, then receive two to three days off. This means they’ll work different days during the first and second weeks of the 14-day cycle.
- Dupont: A longer rotating schedule, the Dupont system spans four weeks in length. Workers typically rotate between day and night shifts every one to two weeks. They’ll work for three or four consecutive days, then receive one to three days off in a row. The four-week schedule culminates in seven consecutive days off for the worker.
Rotating shifts can be more difficult than fixed shifts because they require workers to readjust their schedule every week or month. That said, the circadian rhythms guiding your sleep-wake cycle can be adjusted more easily when you rotate forward from day to night to early morning shifts. Rotating backward or in a random pattern tends to be more disruptive to circadian cycles.
Some workers also struggle with rotating shifts because they’re forced to adjust their sleep-wake schedule every one to two weeks. For many people, rotating every five to seven days is most difficult. Rotating more frequently – every two to three days or so – causes fewer circadian disruptions, while rotating less frequently allows you to spend more time in one circadian cycle before you need to adjust again.
Pros and Cons of Shift Work
Benefits of shift work often include:
- Suited to night owls and morning people: People who feel more motivated and productive after the sun goes down may thrive during a night shift, whereas people who concentrate better in the pre-dawn hours may benefit from an early morning shift.
- Easier commuting: By avoiding roads and highways during peak traffic times, you’ll be able to get to work more quickly than many daytime commuters.
- Better wages than day shifts: While employers in the U.S. are not legally obligated to pay you more for shift work, some companies incentivize workers who work a non-traditional schedule.
Disadvantages of shift work include:
- Sleep problems: Shift work disorder is a medical condition that affects people who work non-traditional schedules. The disorder is characterized by insomnia symptoms when the person tries to sleep and excessive sleepiness when they are awake. Even if their symptoms do not develop into a disorder, many shift workers struggle with falling or remaining asleep during the day when rest is needed and staying awake during their shifts. Hormonal disruptions of cortisol and testosterone levels can affect the quality of life and cause fatigue, low energy levels, and decreased libido.
- Life disruptions: Working at night and sleeping during the day can interfere with family life, as well as socializing with friends or colleagues.
- More hazardous driving conditions: While shift workers contend with less traffic, they are at higher risk of being involved in an accident related to drowsy driving. Most of these collisions occur either between midnight and 6 am, or in the late afternoon, and the majority involve single drivers with no passengers.