At one time, shift-working was mainly a feature of essential services which needed to run around the clock, such as health, transport and communications. But the demands of continuous production and increasing customer expectations of unlimited access to services means that workers in a growing number of sectors and occupations are working shifts.
Below we examine some of the most established shift patterns at work in the UK, outside of the traditional Monday to Friday 9-to-5, including the benefits and drawbacks for employers of these different approaches. We also examine how flexible working patterns can often provide the best solution for both the business and its workforce.
Traditional shift patterns
Standard shifts can vary in length, most commonly from around 8 to 12 hours, with a range of working patterns and shift rotations used to ensure that staff are available as and when required, although much will depend on the nature and the needs of the particular business in question.
Some of the most established approaches to shift-working in the UK include:
The two-shift system
The most frequently worked shift pattern in the UK is probably the two-shift system that will rotate two members or teams of staff. This involves an early and a late shift, comprising two successive 8-hour shifts, such as 6am-2pm followed by 2pm-10pm, with one team working mornings or ‘earlies’ and the other working afternoons or ‘lates’.
These shifts usually run from Monday to Friday and are often alternated on a weekly basis, although the rate of rotation does not need to be on alternate weeks. This could instead be fortnightly, monthly or even quarterly. These shifts can also be fixed, with regular ‘earlies’ and ‘lates’. The two-shift system is often used, for example, in manufacturing.
The three-shift system
The three-shift system adds a night shift to the standard two-shift pattern, giving three rotating 8-hour shifts to provide 24-hour cover where needed. These shifts typically run from 6am-2pm, 2pm-10pm and 10pm-6am, usually over a period of 5 or 6 days.
Again, shifts generally rotate on a weekly basis, where teams will spend a week on each, with nights, afternoons and mornings progression over the three-week cycle. The three-shift system is often used in warehouses or where 24-hour customer service roles are required.
Night shifts are typically 10pm to 6am, Monday to Friday. Some shift-workers work nights as part of a three-shift working arrangement, while others work permanent nights without any rotation into days. When used in isolation, 4 x 12 hour night shifts are popular, in conjunction with 4 consecutive days off. These are often referred to as 4-on 4-off shifts. The 4-on 4-off model can also be used for daytime shifts, or a combination of both, for example, where someone works for 4 consecutive days, followed by 4 days off, then 4 consecutive nights.
The 4-on 4-off shift pattern is often used in industries like healthcare or hospitality. This can be changed to a 4-on and 3-off approach, with fewer rest days taken in between shifts.
Weekend shifts are those taking place over a Saturday and Sunday, or sometimes three days by including Fridays. This shift pattern typically uses 12-hour shifts, possibly rotating between days and nights on alternate weeks where night-shifts apply.
When used in conjunction with a three-shift pattern, full 24/7 cover can be achieved. Weekend shifts, including dedicated weekend night staff, can also be used in combination with any other weekly shift rotations to give Monday to Friday workers a full weekend off.
Twilight or evening shifts
The twilight or evening shift is a short shift worked in the evenings, typically 5pm to 9pm. This is a part-time shift pattern commonly used for cleaning staff, or in the hospitality and service industries, or where there is seasonal demand, such as in retail.
A split shift is one that is divided into two parts so that a shift-worker may, for example, work the first part of their shift between 6am and 10am, while the latter take may place between 4pm and 8pm. The split shift is again a common arrangement for cleaning contracts.
Staggered day shifts
Staggered days are typically based on a pattern of 5 x 8 hour days, but spread over 6 or 7 days to provide formal weekend cover. Workers are normally given compensating days off during the week and this shift pattern tends to be based on a 2 or 3 weekly cycle. The staggered days shift pattern is frequently used in retail, or for plant maintenance and services groups.
Benefits of different shift patterns
The availability of a wide range of shift patterns at work can provide employers with a choice of ways in which they can provide the appropriate level of cover needed for their business at all times. Additionally, a combination of different shift patterns can be tailored to meet both the needs of the business and those of individual workers.
Different benefits also arise for different shift patterns. For example, the twilight shift is reported to be a highly productive working structure because the shifts are short and staff are often highly motivated. This shift pattern is useful when offering part-time work and is popular with staff with other responsibilities, such as caring for children since it can provide employment when care can be provided by a partner working normal daytime hours.
Equally, the use of 12-hour shifts, over the more traditional 8-hour shift, are popular with many workers as they involve working fewer shifts over the shift pattern cycle. Even night shifts, whilst not for everyone, can suit certain individuals, not least because pay rates tend to be higher and workers can be drawn to the relatively quiet nature of the work, resulting in increased levels of employee engagement and staff retention rates.
Drawbacks of different shift patterns
There are specific drawbacks to each and every shift pattern, although the use of any form of shift-working is likely to come at a financial cost to the employer. This is because there is usually a shift allowance rolled into the pay rate as a benefit of working shifts. These payments are designed to compensate workers for the unsociable aspects of shift work and the disruption that working non-standard hours can cause to their personal lives. At the same time, premium payments make shift-work more attractive to staff and therefore ensures that there is sufficient available labour to cover the necessary work.
The size of the shift premium is typically linked to the relative inconvenience of a particular shift pattern, reflecting things like the time when shifts are worked, the length of the shift, whether weekend or night work is involved, and the speed of rotation. For example, even though night-shift workers are not legally entitled to a higher rate of pay, the premium to incentivise staff to work nights will often be much higher than for daytime shift-working. Where night working forms part of a 4-on 4-off pattern, the consecutive number of weekends that can be affected by the shift pattern can also equate to a need to pay workers more.
Perhaps, however, the greatest drawback involved in the regular use of shift patterns at work are the risks to health and safety of staff caused by working long or unsociable hours. Shiftwork, especially night-work, is known to have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of workers, where extensive research has shown that shift-work significantly disrupts the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, impacting the quality and quantity of sleep a person gets, not to mention significant disruption to their family and social life.
The overall impact of shift-work can therefore result in fatigue and mental stress, often exacerbated by a poor work-life balance. This, in turn, can result in reduced performance and productivity, low levels of employee engagement and increased staff turnover. Where workers are tired and stressed, this can also result in a higher risk of absences and accidents and injuries, and even long-term health issues from prolonged periods of disturbed sleep and irregular mealtimes.
Health & safety duties for shift-working
All employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their staff. This means that they cannot normally require their staff to work excessive hours or unsuitable shift patterns that are likely to lead to ill health or accidents caused by fatigue.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers must carry out a risk assessment to identify potential hazards associated with shift patterns, and take measures to eliminate or control them. This could include risks to both the physical or mental wellbeing of their workforce, including work-related stress, where particular emphasis should be placed by the employer on the provision of:
- adequate supervision for all shift patterns
- access to refreshment facilities, such as canteens or vending machines
- access to training for all staff, even those working unsociable hours
- consideration of the needs of staff with domestic responsibilities
- consideration of transport needs for those working unsociable hours
- alternative days off where weekends and bank holidays are worked.
In addition to these general health and safety duties, under the Working Time Regulations 1998 specific statutory duties arise in the context of night-shift working. Where a risk assessment highlights workplace hazards, or heavy physical or mental strain, the employer must ensure that workers do not undertake more than 8 hours of work in any 24-hour period during which they perform night work. Otherwise, the night-shift worker must not work more than an average of 8 hours on night work in each 24-hour period over a period of 17 weeks.
The employer must offer free health assessments to new night-shift workers and on a regular basis moving forward, keeping records of both these assessments and the hours worked. If a worker is found to have health problems related to night-time working, the employer must offer suitable daytime work where at all possible. Additionally, all workers, including daytime workers, are entitled under the 1998 Regulations to a minimum number of rest breaks, both at work and between shifts, with an overall 48-hour weekly working time limit.
Which is the best shift pattern for my business?
You can tailor any type of shift pattern to suit the needs of your business, for example, by varying shift lengths and rotations, provided you comply with the rules relating to rest breaks and the maximum weekly and night working hours. However, the key to creating the best solution for both your business and workforce, not least to ensure the health and wellbeing of your shift-workers, is often by introducing some level of built-in flexibility.
Each and every worker will have unique needs based on their personal circumstances and preferences. This is even more pertinent in the context of COVID-19, where workers are looking for ways in which they can work more flexibly. Although flexible working arrangements require a greater degree of rota planning to help keep track of each worker and how long their shifts last, the ability to meet the needs of each worker, as well as the demands of the business, can help to maximise the benefits and minimise the drawbacks of shift-working.
DavidsonMorris’ HR consultants work with employers to support and nurture healthy, productive and engaged workforces. We help to develop and implement workforce management and engagement strategies aligned to your people and organisation objectives, while improving performance and protecting commercial interests. Working closely with our employment law colleagues, we provide holistic guidance which encompasses the HR aspects and the legal aspects of implementing change within the workplace. For expert advice on the impact of different working patterns and how shift working could work for your business, contact us.
Shift pattern FAQs
What are the best shift patterns?
The best shift patterns are typically those that provide the employer with reliable cover across all areas of their business, while the staff themselves benefit from a predictable, regular working pattern that they can easily plan around.
What is the best shift work schedule?
There is no single defined 'best shift work schedule’, as much will depend on the needs of the business and the individual shift-worker. However, the “4 on, 4 off” model is popular as workers benefit from long rest periods.
What does shift pattern days mean?
Shift pattern days refer to a schedule of working where staff are rostered to work in rotation, for example, the two-shift system rotates two teams of staff working mornings and afternoons, typically 6am-2pm and 2pm-10pm.
What is a 5 over 7 shift pattern?
The 5 over 7 shift pattern usually refers to where someone works 5 days a week, then has 2 days off. The days off could be weekends, although rest days can vary.
Last updated: 11 July 2021