All About Shift Work

Whether day, swing, or graveyard, every shift has its charms.

A woman in a hurry punches in at the company time clock.

Shift work involves scheduling employees to perform their job duties during all 24 hours of the day and usually the entire week. It is used when a lapse in work would be detrimental for the employer and those who use their services, for example, a hospital, utility, or police department, or when it is more efficient for the entity to continuously operate, as in the case of a busy factory.

Types of Shift Work Schedules

There are different types of shift work schedules. Employers may assign workers to a first shift, second shift, or third shift. They may schedule employees to work regularly during that shift, called a fixed shift, or to work rotating shifts.

First Shift: This is what we often refer to as traditional hours. Individuals who have the first shift usually work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but may alternatively be on the job from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Second Shift: Relieving first shift workers are second shift workers who often start at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. and clock out at midnight or 1 a.m.

Third Shift: The third shift is commonly referred to as the graveyard or overnight shift. Employees arrive for work between 10 p.m. and midnight and leave between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Fixed Shifts: Employees are assigned to a fixed shift work the same hours every day.

Rotating Shifts: Instead of having the same shift every day, workers on rotating shifts work different hours depending on the day. For example, one may work first shift three days a week and second shift two days.

The length of shifts may also vary and with that the number of days one works and has off each week. For instance, some workers have four 10-hour shifts and three days off each week. Others work three 12-hour shifts with four days off.

Occupations in Which Shift Work Is Common

The protective services, production, health care, and transportation and materials moving industries all utilize shift work. Individuals who are employed in those industries should expect to have schedules that may include working evening, overnight, and weekend shifts and often have to work on holidays as well. Here are some occupations that commonly employ shift work:

When choosing an occupation or evaluating a job offer, take into account whether it involves shift work. Some people enjoy this type of schedule, but many do not. If you are opposed to having to work nights, for example, avoid occupations or positions that could require it.

How Shift Work Benefits Employees

There are positive aspects to shift work, especially for individuals who work during second and third shifts, or are scheduled for earlier or later first shifts, for example, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., rather than 9 to 5. Non-traditional hours allows workers to commute during less busy travel times. That means avoiding heavy traffic on the roads and crowded public transportation. There may also be monetary savings. Tolls and fares are sometimes reduced during non-peak hours.

Those who work non-traditional schedules also enjoy attending to errands during less busy times of the day. They can go shopping, for instance, while most other people are at work. This is especially true for those who work weekend days with time off during the week.

Having hours off during the day, as second and third shift workers do, makes it easier to make doctor appointments, too. Although some medical offices have evening hours to serve people who work all day, many do not.

Families may be able to avoid the expense of childcare. Parents can have opposite shifts, for example, with one working the first shift and the other the third. This is a good solution with school-age children since the parent who is on the overnight shift can sleep while the children are in school and pick them up before heading back to work when the other parent returns home.


Some organizations offer their employees flexible schedules, known as flextime. Employers may allow workers to arrive and leave when they want, as long as specific hours are covered or may stagger their shifts throughout the day. Flextime serves a similar purpose to shift work in that workplaces are staffed for more hours during the day than they would be otherwise.

Problems Associated With Shift Work

Shift work can have negative effects on individuals, particularly those who work overnight. The National Sleep Foundation reports that “long-term night shift work is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, as well as metabolic problems, heart disease, ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, and obesity.”

Mental health could also suffer. A study of South Korean electronics workers showed that “shift work is related to an increased risk of mental health problems in production workers, and the sleep disturbance related with shift work is a central mechanism for this relationship.”

Night shift workers may also be at greater risk of work-related accidents. According to The National Sleep Foundation, they include a dip in alertness at night due to “the natural pattern of the body’s clock,” sleepiness leading to slower reaction times and poor decision making, and reduced supervision during night shifts.

Is Shift Work for You?

To decide if shift work is for you, answer these questions:

  • Are you okay with being at work while other people are spending time with their families and friends or sleeping?
  • Are you interested in an occupation or industry that typically utilizes shift work?
  • Will you be able to avoid some of the harmful effects of shift work by sticking to a strict sleep schedule during your off time?