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What Is Shift Work?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 July 2014
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Shift work refers to employers considering the workday as 24 hours and designing work in shifts to cover that time period. Employees may work on an off shift on a temporary basis and this may rotate, or they may work what is considered an off shift for long periods of time. Some industries necessarily need to operate at all times, like hospitals. Patients would be in trouble if all nurses and doctors left work at 5 pm and didn’t return until the next morning. Other industries have used such models to increase production or to cover needs of operating around the clock.

It’s important to understand that shift work doesn’t always refer to the individual employee. Instead it is more about the organizing practice of the employer. However, this practice can have significant consequences for the employee. Working off shifts, especially shifts that involve working at night and sleeping during the day, have been associated with several health consequences. Disruption of circadian rhythms, especially if inadequate light exposure is achieved during the day may increase risk for heart disease and people on off shifts are at higher risk for certain types of headache, high blood pressure and breast cancer. It is thought that changes to shifts on a regular basis, where employees rotate between night and day shift is potentially more risky, since regular sleep patterns cannot be established.

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For companies, there are several concerns with shift work. One is organizing the shifts appropriately. Companies may decide to run three shifts a day, where employees will work in eight-hour increments. Alternately, they may run two twelve-hour shifts a day. When shifts begin and end on shift work may vary per company, and one of the disadvantages of this form of work is that it is usually difficult to offer flex time to employees, since creating the shift means keeping most people on a certain schedule.

Another issue with shift work is that it costs more. Employees may receive extra compensation if they work longer than eight hours, or work off shifts. Most companies pay extra for overtime, as much as time and half, and pay a differential for those working off shifts, which can be between 5-30% of pay per hour. Employers may also have much higher electricity and gas bills if they require power 24 hours a day instead of just for an eight-hour period daily.

The extra pay may also prove disadvantageous to employees at certain times. It may create financial problems when employees must take sick or vacation time because compensation then drops to base pay without overtime or differential. Many employees take an off shift for the extra pay, and they may not receive this when they are out sick or when they take vacation time. In companies that have forced shut downs around holidays, a huge problem may be created for employees who have worked off shifts to make extra money, and must get by with less. Arguably employees still pay a price for being on an off shift if they have days off, because they must either change their sleep cycle or continue on the same unusual sleep pattern which may make them less available to family and friends.

A number of industries aside from health care in hospitals routinely practice shift work. These include law enforcement, fire safety departments, rescue agencies, 24-hour restaurants, bakeries, military forces, broadcast networks, air traffic control, and many others. In many manufacturing plants, shift work may be conducted on an as needed or per demand basis. If demand for a product increases, a company might temporarily create extra shifts to meet the demand, or they may operate 24 hours a day at all times to be ready to meet demand as it arises.

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Discuss this Article

icecream17
Post 2

Sunshine31- I agree with you. I had a friend of mine that was a nurse that selected 12 hour shift work so she could stay home with her son.

It worked out well because her husband owned a business and cared for the child when she worked. This way she still gets to enjoy her career and still be able to stay home with her son on the other days.

She told me that there were shorter shift work hours but she wanted to consolidate her week into three long days and a short half day. She really enjoyed her shift work schedule.

sunshine31
Post 1

Excellent article- I just want to say that sometimes being a shift worker can be advantageous. For example, my cousin works for a phone company as a computer operator.

He normally works a twelve hour shift there and he chose to work the swing shift from 7PM to 7AM so that he could take his son to school and pick him up afterschool when his son was with him.

But like the writer said it was difficult to get used to that shift and he did gain a considerable amount of weight.

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