What Is Shift Work? (Definition, Types and Jobs)
Updated February 16, 2023
Although many employees work average business hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday, some working professionals perform their duties in less common work shifts. While this type of schedule is not practiced in all industries, you might find employment with a company that does.
In this article, we explain shift work, industries that commonly use shifts, and the pros and cons of working a shift schedule.
What is shift work?
Shift work is a work schedule that is performed in rotations. Different groups of workers often do the same jobs in rotation. For example, while some employees might fill a role during the day, others might work night or early morning shifts. In some cases, employees may work various eight-hour shifts throughout the week, others might work all their hours three days a week and have the next four days off.
What are the types of work shifts?
A shift schedule is highly dependent on the industry and company you work for. There are three main ways to schedule shifts, including:
Day shift (aka first shift): Early morning to the afternoon, often from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Afternoon shift (aka swing or second shift): Afternoon to evening, often from 4 p.m. to midnight.
Night shift (aka graveyard or third shift): Evening to morning, such as midnight to 8 a.m.
Other kinds of shift schedules employers use include:
Split shift: Split shift workers perform their job duties during two separate shifts on the same day. For example, they might work 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., have a four-hour break and resume work from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Fixed shift: Fixed shift employees work specific days and hours each week. Although there may be certain exceptions, such as overtime during times of increased production, holidays off or schedule swaps, employees on a fixed shift schedule can reasonably expect a predictable calendar.
Rotating shift: These types of shifts are when employees trade their daily scheduled hours every week, month or another set period of time. This type of shift helps ensure that employees work a balance of more or less desirable shifts.
On-call shift: Employees who work on-call shifts are often not physically present at their place of work during their scheduled on-call time. They are instead required to remain available via phone under certain conditions and must often come into the workplace within a certain amount of time if called.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 84% of wage and salary workers worked a regular daytime schedule in 2017-18, while 16% of workers worked a nondaytime schedule. Of that 16% of workers who worked a nontraditional schedule:
6% of workers worked evenings
4% of workers worked nights
10% of workers had a rotating shift, a split shift, an irregular schedule or some other schedule
What industries use shift work?
Several companies require their employees to perform shift work. Here are four common industries and a few roles in each that often perform shift work:
1. Law enforcement
Various branches of law enforcement require their employees to work in shifts. This is mainly due to the need for employees to work overnight. Some law enforcement jobs that employ shift work include:
National average salary: $42,229 per year
Primary duties: Border patrol agents are responsible for watching the border and apprehending anyone illegally crossing a border or attempting to smuggle illegal items past security. They also must gather intelligence and make arrests as necessary.
National average salary: $56,213 per year
Primary duties: Police officers have a wide variety of responsibilities that involve upholding the law and protecting people. Some tasks include making arrests, patrolling areas and responding to emergency calls. Police officers must be assertive, good communicators and have interpersonal skills.
The transportation industry covers everyone from airline workers to passenger bus drivers. Depending on your position, your transportation job may require you to work in shifts. Here are two such roles:
National average salary: $26,361 per year
Primary duties: Flight attendants are responsible for the care and comfort of airline passengers. They're also tasked with keeping them safe and mandating safety regulations during the flight. Flight attendants must be attentive and good communicators.
National average salary: $77,808 per year
Primary duties: Truck drivers' main job duties include transporting goods and merchandise over long distances. They're also required to load and unload goods, refuel the truck and report any issues or incidents on the road. Truck drivers must have good communication skills and be physically able to lift heavy items.
Tactical professions, such as those in the military, are well-known for requiring shift work. Similar to those in law enforcement, this is in part due to the military's need for overnight shifts. Here are two positions where you're likely to encounter shift work:
National average salary: $48,377 per year
Primary duties: Cannon crewmembers are responsible for operating weapons systems and engaging the enemy during combat. They also operate howitzer cannons and set fuses on various munitions. They must have a good battle strategy, work well as part of a team and be physically fit.
National average salary: $51,262 per year
Primary duties: Infantry soldiers engage in combat on the battlefield during enemy attacks. As with all military positions, they're responsible for defending the country. Infantrymen must be physically fit and able to manage stress.
Related: Military Careers: A Definitive Guide
4. Health care
Because a large portion of the health care industry is concerned with caring for patients staying in a hospital overnight or for extended periods, shift work is deemed necessary. Here are a couple of positions within the health care industry where you'll likely find shift work:
National average salary: $92,892 per year
Primary duties: Registered nurses are tasked with maintaining patient records, monitoring patients and providing them with the necessary medications and treatment. They assist doctors in administering treatment to a wide variety of patients. Registered nurses should be good communicators, be attentive to their patients and display empathy.
National average salary: $207,244 per year
Primary duties: Although there are many types of doctors, a physician is responsible for the medical care of a patient. They perform diagnostic tests, look over patient histories, make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment. If required, they might ask patients to come in for a follow-up appointment for further examination. Doctors are required to be good problem solvers, attentive and have good communication skills.
Other jobs that use shift work include:
Related: 30 Jobs That Escape the 9-To-5 Hours
Pros and cons of shift work
There are various pros and cons of shift work to be aware of when considering a job that has nontraditional hours.
Pros of shift work
The benefits of shift work include:
More flexibility: Working in shifts offers greater flexibility than a normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift does. Shift work could allow you the opportunity to attend to your family, make various appointments during the daytime or swap shifts with coworkers.
Easier commuting: It's also great for working professionals who are trying to avoid rush hour traffic or other busy commute times.
Cons of shift work
Some disadvantages of nontraditional shift work include:
Sleep problems: Working at various hours of the day and having an inconsistent schedule can lead to sleeping disorders. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) says that while insomnia and sleepiness symptoms are common in shift workers, 20%-30% experience more severe symptoms and meet the criteria for shift work sleep disorder (SWD).
Scheduling issues: Because most people (84%) work more traditional 9-5 hours, you may find that working nontraditional shifts interfere with your social or family life.
Higher risk of accidents: If you find that you’re drowsy or tired during your nontraditional work shift, you’re more likely to be involved in an accident at work or while driving.
Shift work can also affect your mental and physical health as well as your overall performance level. The AASM says that people who work rotating shifts tend to have lower levels of serotonin, a hormone and neurotransmitter in the central nervous system believed to play an important role in the regulation of sleep. Low levels of serotonin are also often associated with other conditions such as anger, depression and anxiety.
Tips for managing shift work schedules
If you're new to working a shift schedule, there are several things to consider as you start to modify your new routine. Here are some helpful tips when it comes to managing your working schedule:
Keep a consistent schedule. Maintaining the same schedule can help not only your sleep cycles but also your physical and mental health.
Get on a sleep schedule. Getting your body accustomed to the same bedtime or hours of sleep can help regulate it and make it easier on you and your performance level overall.
Avoid frequently rotating shifts. If a rotating shift is necessary, rotate from a day to evening to night shift rather than the other way around.
Limit caffeine during the end of your shift. Consuming caffeine at the end of your shift can make it harder for you to fall asleep once you're home.
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