Rotating shifts are scheduled shifts that change over time. An example might be a customer service rep who works six weeks of day shifts, followed by six weeks of night shifts. In another example, a first responder might work from 7 AM to 3 PM one day, from 3 PM to 11 PM the next, and 11 PM to 7 AM the day after that.
If you’ve never worked a rotating shift, the reality of that life can be difficult to comprehend. Often, it’s a mix of resetting sleep schedules and reconfiguring family responsibilities. Finding free time to hang out with friends or see loved ones may be challenging, and the resulting lack of human connection, isolating.
Over the years, researchers have blamed rotating shifts for mental and physical health risks such as depression and anxiety, weight gain, and lack of sleep. Some sources have even linked rotating shifts to divorce and early death.
Given the magnitude of the health risks associated with rotating shifts, it seems incredible that so many American workers adhere to such a schedule. Yet an estimated 2.4% of the working population does work that way, according to 2017-2018 data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There are around 157 million American workers total, which means 3,768,000 have rotating shifts.
Brianna Meinburg, a hospital nurse, and Jeremy Clark, a section head for a regional grocery chain, are two such shift workers. As we examine the ins and outs of rotating shifts, their stories may bring some color to what we think about shift work.
Rotating shift work is work scheduled in blocks of time that change from week to week or month to month. Often, facilities that require rotating shifts to operate effectively do so because their business needs employees 24/7. Rather than expecting certain members to work unpopular hours, the employer may try to distribute the burden of those hours evenly. That way, everyone has a turn working “good” and “bad” shifts.
When asked why they work rotating shifts, 58.4% of workers in the BLS survey said it was “the nature of the job.” And while 8.6% said they did it because they couldn’t get any other shift, over 15.5% said it was their personal preference.
For Jeremy and Brianna, rotating shifts have their ups and downs. “I like the flexibility it allows,” says Brianna, who has a 2-year-old at home. But juggling motherhood and night shifts can be tough, too. “I’ve actually asked to switch to days,” she says. “Working nights, my schedule is flipped, so I’m always tired during the day and don’t feel like I’m present enough on my days off.”
As for Jeremy, who works different shifts depending on the jobs he’s assigned, time off can be part of the challenge. “The biggest disadvantage, especially in my situation, is you can often work long hours with little time between shifts—as little as eight hours on occasion. And with rotating days off, it can be over a week before you get any time away from work.”
Essentially, rotating shifts work by cycling employees through a schedule of shifts. There might be a morning shift, an afternoon shift, an evening shift, and an overnight shift. Employees take turns working each shift over time. Or rotating shifts might work by having an employee work the same shift each week but on different days. Employees may take turns having Saturdays or Sundays off, so everyone has a chance to be home on the traditional weekend. Rotating shifts can be problematic when scheduling shifts for employees.
Managers can configure rotating shifts in hundreds of ways. An employee’s schedule might rotate from day to day, week to week, or month to month.
As a night-shift nurse, Brianna works 7 PM to 7:30 AM, three days a week. But the days she works each week aren’t set in stone. “I can work Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday one week, then Thursday, Friday, and Saturday the next,” she says.
Jeremy’s rotations are even more chaotic, depending on the role he’s filling when he’s in the store. “As a section head in one department and a relief person in charge (PIC) in another, my schedule fluctuates pretty regularly,” says Jeremy. “Typically, I work morning shifts, usually 5 AM to 2 PM. But when I’m scheduled for a PIC shift, I will often work closing shifts, usually 2 PM to 11 PM. Every once in a while, I will work a week or two of graveyard shifts, from 12 AM to 8:30 AM.”
Looking to build a schedule of rotating shifts that will cover all 24 hours of work? Here are the most common shift examples:
The strategy for scheduling shift workers might look a little different based on your industry, team size, or scheduling preferences. Many managers take into account employee preferences. One in 2 employees has some control over their schedule, according to a 2017 shift worker survey. Brianna and Jeremy both benefit from managers who prioritize their preferences.
“We do self-scheduling,” says Brianna. “We have to work three weekend shifts per month, which is a Friday or Saturday night for night-shift workers like me. We schedule ourselves for the days we want to work, then our manager goes through and evens it all out. We can ‘black out’ days we really don’t want to work, but we only get six of those a month. They do their best to keep our schedules as close to what we ask for.”
Brianna prefers to work her shifts three days in a row. “My scheduling manager knows that,” she says. “So when she has to move me, she still tries to keep my days together.”
Jeremy, who’s worked in retail for over 12 years, says his manager has been receptive to the scheduling changes he’s brought up as well. “I actually like my 5 AM to 2 PM shifts, as they leave me plenty of afternoon time to enjoy the day.”
In the end, whatever scheduling strategy you use, it seems one component must be in place: Communication and the opportunity to request change. 41% of employees who have no control over their schedules would choose a different one, according to a TSheets work schedule survey.
Some rotating shifts change by the hour, while others vary by day, week, or quarter. There are four different types of rotating shifts.
Nurses are some of the most visible rotating shift workers. For them, the most common rotating shift schedule is 12-14 hours per shift, three days a week. That’s three days on and four days off. 70% of nurses work shifts that last 12 or more hours, according to a study of 22,275 registered nurses.
Just 4% of nurses surveyed said they worked four 10- to 11-hour shifts, while 26% said they had shifts of 8-9 hours. Assuming their scheduling managers operate like Brianna’s, these nurses likely have a weekend rotation schedule.
The military is another space where rotating shifts appear common. One military blogger describes a rotating shift schedule of two 12-hour day shifts, followed by two 12-hour night shifts, then four days off. Depending on the job or department, a schedule like that might also incorporate swing shifts, or “second shifts.” Swing shifts are handy when a soldier is in training the first half of the day (say, 8 AM to 2 PM). Then, rather than going home, the soldier will be scheduled for duty the latter half of the day (2 PM to 11 PM).
No matter what industry you’re in, creating a successful rotating shift comes down to a few basic factors:
Fixed shifts and rotating shifts are both “shift work,” but the difference lies in the stability and constancy of the employee’s schedule. Say an employee is hourly, and they work Monday through Friday, from 9 to 5. If no one asks them to take a different shift, they have a fixed shift. But if that shift changes from week to week or month to month, that employee might have a rotating shift.
From a manager’s perspective, fixed shifts and rotating shifts each have their advantages.
Advantages of a fixed shift schedule:
Advantages of a rotating shift schedule:
Employee turnover can be a big deal, both because it’s expensive and it’s a burden to hire and train repeatedly. That’s important, because when you compare a fixed shift schedule to a rotational schedule, cost of turnover may be a reason you choose fixed. Workers with rotating schedules had the lowest level of long-term (over three years) retention, according to the TSheets work schedule survey.
A 1977 article by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare states that shift work might be more prevalent in industries with:
Forty years later, those two statements hold true. Thus, rotating shifts are common in industries such as:
One 1997 BLS study looked at industries most likely to have “alternative shifts.” Alternative shifts were defined as “work schedules that do not conform to the regular daytime schedule.” These included evening, night, and rotating shifts completed by full-time employees. The study found that employees in “service occupations” were most likely to have alternative shifts. “37.1% of full-time wage and salary workers in service jobs had alternative shifts … more than twice the 16.8% among all full-time employees.”
The top five industries to have alternative shifts in 1997, and the percentage of workers in each industry who worked alternative shifts, include:
These numbers may have remained steady 20 years later.
“One advantage of working rotating shifts is the ability to adjust your work schedule around personal activities and events. Sometimes, you can do it without losing hours or using vacation or personal time,” says Jeremy.
The caveat is that, like any other employee, Jeremy needs to give his scheduling manager ample notice of any shifts he can or cannot work.
Still, unlike employees who work a set shift, Jeremy has the option to move his working days around slightly. With enough notice, he can schedule his “weekend” to fall on any days he likes.
Here are some other benefits of rotating shifts:
Rotating shifts are associated with numerous health risks:
The more employers force employees to change their sleep schedules, the greater the damage. Interrupting a person’s circadian rhythm and their body’s natural ability to process and heal translates to damage on a cellular level.
Sleep deprivation may inhibit your body from producing proteins that help fight off infection, according to the Mayo Clinic. Such proteins are especially helpful in fighting infection during times of stress. The Mayo Clinic also cautions that long-term lack of sleep may increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Women, especially, seem susceptible to the adverse health effects of rotating shifts. A study of 74,862 nurses found that those who worked rotating night shifts were 11% more likely to die early, compared to their non-rotating peers. Those who spent more than 15 years on rotating night shifts were 38% more likely to have died of heart disease than those who only worked days.
Rotating shift work is unhealthy on a physical and mental level. Mentally, rotating shift work may lead to higher stress, anxiety, and depression. Shift work disorder (SWD) develops in up to 26% of rotating shift workers, according to resources in the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Workers with SWD are unable to “recalibrate the timing of their circadian clocks to their work-related sleep-wake schedules.” As a result, “SWD sufferers reported greater severity of sleepiness, depression, and anxiety.” The study goes on to say, “In addition to sleep-wake complaints, shift workers report poorer mental health and lower quality of life.”
Non-regular shifts don’t just encourage interrupted sleep. They can make it difficult for workers to engage with family or friends, which can add to the mental burden. Multiple studies have tied irregular shift work, including rotating shifts, to higher rates of divorce and breakups. One study found that shift work among married partners increased the probability of divorce from 7% to 11% over a three-year period. For Jeremy, that’s a statistical chance he’s experienced firsthand.
“I do believe that [rotating shifts] played a factor in the ending of my relationship,” he says. “My girlfriend worked a typical 9-5 job, and there were stretches where we wouldn’t see each other for days,” he says. “While I believe that I have found a healthy balance [between work and home] again, I wouldn’t say that it is an ideal situation to be in day in, day out.”
Here’s the thing about rotating shifts: Often, there’s no easy solution. All those people who said rotating shifts were “the nature of the job” were right. Without hardworking people pitching in at every hour—in industries like medicine, hospitality, or even food service—society’s needs couldn’t be met.
Data shows that, for many, rotating shifts will do damage, mentally and physically. But if there’s a bright side, it’s this: Good managers can help. And certain tools, including employee scheduling software, can help employers better visualize and prioritize their employees’ health. When you put the two together, the outcome is rotating shifts built with empathy and care, so that neither business nor employees suffer.