Adopting split shifts in the workplace can provide a business with many benefits, not least in helping to meet its daily operational needs and optimising productivity, provided the rules relating to minimum breaks and maximum working hours are being met.
In this guide for employers, we set out how split shifts work in practice and when split shifts are commonly used, as well as their benefits and drawbacks. We also look at the rules around implementing split shifts at work and the alternative shift patterns potentially available.
What are split shifts?
Standard shifts in UK workplaces can vary in length from 8-12 hours, where a split shift is one in which a person’s work schedule is divided into two or more parts. For example, rather than working a typical 9-to-5 shift, an employee may work the first part of their shift between the hours of 8am-midday and the second part of their shift between 4pm-8pm.
When adopting a split shift pattern, the employee’s workday would have longer start and end times, but that individual would benefit from a long break in between shifts. Unlike a normal work day, incorporating the usual hour or half hour lunch break, which does not count as a split shift, the break between split shifts would be at least 2 hours and unpaid.
To be a valid split shift, this must be scheduled in advance, where a long lunch break requested by an employee to accommodate personal commitments does not qualify as a split shift. Equally, split shifts are also different from working a double shift, as the former arrangement divides up normal working hours throughout the course of the day, while the latter arrangement is associated with doing two full-length shifts in a single day.
Common uses for split shifts
Employers in hospitality, healthcare and customer service businesses have long used split shifts, including for pub and restaurant workers, residential care workers and remote call centre workers. The split shift is also a common arrangement in the context of cleaning contracts. However, modern workplace dynamics mean that workers in a growing number of industry sectors and occupations are now working a whole range of different shift patterns, including split shifts. For example, split shifts can be useful for:
- global remote teams
- businesses with peak and slow periods
- businesses with time-sensitive needs, such as meetings or deadlines.
Split shifts do not necessarily make sense for all types of businesses. For example, for in-person office environments, where activity is consistent throughout the day, the typical 9-to-5 is often better suited, while for manufacturing, where production may need to be continuous, successive 8-hour shifts worked by different staff is more appropriate. Still, the split shift is becoming an increasingly popular working arrangement, not only with employers, but also with employees looking for time off during the day to accommodate their own personal commitments and create a more practicable work/life balance.
Depending on the industry and occupation, as well as the unique needs of both the business and employee in question, split shifts can follow a variety of different formats. For example, a restaurant cook could start their day at 10am and work until 2pm to cover food prep and lunch rush needs. They could then take an unpaid break from 2pm until 5pm when the restaurant is slow, returning to work until 9pm to assist with the dinner rush. This would equate to a total working day of 8 hours. Equally, a global remote worker could start the first part of their shift at 7am to 10am to attend meetings with coworkers and clients from another time zone. They could then take a long break and return to work the second part of their shift between 2pm to 7pm to complete other tasks, again working a total of 8 hours.
Benefits of split shifts
There are various benefits to adopting split shifts in the workplace, even in industry sectors and occupations where the split shift is not an established or traditional working pattern.
From the employer’s perspective, where consistently covering labour demands can be difficult at times, a split shift arrangement across some or all of the workforce will provide increased availability of staff, helping to allocate coverage to peak times when the business needs it most. It is also worth noting that strict workday hours can often discourage individuals with personal commitments during the day from applying for jobs, whereas creating more flexible schedules by splitting shifts can help attract a wider pool of talent.
Scheduling split shifts can also be an effective strategy for controlling labour and overhead costs. If a business has peak and slow periods throughout the day, the employer can schedule employees as and when they are needed to cover busy times, giving them unpaid breaks when the needs of the business are such that staff cover is not required.
Equally, from the employee’s perspective, the split shift can provide a much improved work/life balance, enabling individuals to meet outside commitments that may otherwise conflict with traditional working hours, without losing hours or pay and straining their schedule. This could include meeting childcare commitments, undertaking personal tasks that need to be done during the day and attending any medical or other appointments.
In turn, an improved work/life balance can lead to increased job satisfaction, better employee engagement and a boost in productivity for the employer’s business. Studies show that long work hours and productivity have an inverse relationship, meaning that employees become less productive the longer they work. Breaking up hours with split shifts can help alleviate stress, fatigue and employee burnout, where happier and healthier employees often lead to lower rates of absenteeism and staff turnover. As such, overall, the use of split shifts can create a more organised, cost-effective and efficient workplace.
Drawbacks of split shifts
There are specific drawbacks to every shift pattern, although the split shift is possibly the one that attracts the least criticism. This is because many shift patterns, especially ones involving unsociable or night-time hours will typically come at a cost to the employer.
For example, there is usually a shift allowance rolled into the employee’s pay-rate to compensate workers for the disruption that working non-standard hours can cause to their personal lives, where premium payments make shift-work more attractive to staff and therefore ensures that there is sufficient available labour to cover the necessary work. In contrast, the split shift is typically during daytime hours only, and one which often benefits both the business and its staff, where a shift allowance is often unnecessary. The benefit for each employee lies in having the flexibility of free-time during their working day.
The other main 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, where this is again not applicable to the split shift pattern, quite the opposite in fact. The split shift, with long breaks in-between working hours can give the employee time to rest and recuperate.
Perhaps the only sensible criticism of split shifts is that this working arrangement is not suited to every type of business, where only certain industries or occupations can reap the benefits. Still, it is open to employers to adopt this working arrangement with individual employees, where appropriate, even if this arrangement is not suited to the full workforce.
Best practice to implement split shifts
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to adopting split shifts in the workplace, where this can be applied by an employer across an entire workforce or put in place for individual employees looking for more flexible working arrangements to suit their needs.
However, as with any type of shift pattern, the employer must comply with the rules around maximum weekly working hours. By law, an employee cannot work more than 48 hours a week on average, normally averaged out over 17 weeks, although an individual employee can choose to opt out of the 48-hour week, provided they put this in writing. In hospitality and care work, it is not uncommon for staff to work long hours, albeit split over two parts during the course of the working day, where working in excess of 48 hours can be standard.
In these types of cases, the employer must ensure that either they have a written agreement from the employee that they have consented to opt out of the maximum weekly hours, or that they carefully manage and monitor an employee’s hours to ensure that they do not exceed 48 hours a week on average over the course of the 17-week reference period.
Split shift & minimum break time rules
In addition to the rules on maximum weekly working hours, employers must also comply with the rules relating to minimum break times at work. All employees, regardless of the times worked, will usually be entitled to one uninterrupted 20 minute rest break during any shift of more than 6 hours, 11 hours rest between shifts, and either one uninterrupted period of 24 hours each week without any work or 48 hours each fortnight.
However, under the rules, the right to a minimum daily rest period may be interrupted in the case of activities involving periods of work that are split up over the day. This includes, for example, a cleaner who works from 6am to 10am each day, and again from 4pm to 8pm, who will not then have a full 11 hours uninterrupted rest. Still, employers should ideally aim for 11-hour rest breaks in-between daily shifts where at all possible.
Outside of these rest break rules, as well as the rules relating to maximum weekly working hours, it is at the employer’s discretion as to what working pattern and weekly hours will be required of their staff based on the needs of the business and/or the individual employee.
Alternative shift patterns
There are a range of working patterns and shift rotations available to employers outside of the traditional Monday to Friday 9-to-5 and in addition to the split shift, some of which may be suited to certain types of industries and occupations. For example, the 2-shift system, incorporating two successive 8-hour shifts worked by different staff, with ‘earlies’ and ‘lates’ rotated on a regular basis, is a common working pattern in manufacturing.
Equally, the 3-shift system, adding an additional 8-hour nightshift to the standard 2-shift pattern is often used in warehouses or where 24-hour customer service or other round-the-clock roles are required, such as hospitality and healthcare work.
There are also weekend shifts, as well as twilight or evening shifts (which may or may not be part of a split shift) to cover the retail and others industry sectors that operate outside of weekdays. Finally, there are staggered shifts for things like plant maintenance and services groups, typically based on a pattern of 5 x 8-hour days spread over 6 or 7 days to provide formal weekend cover, where these workers are given days off during the week.
where the type of shift pattern that is best suited to a business may not only come down to the industry sector or occupation, but to the individual needs of both the business and its staff. By being open to different types of shift working, this flexibility can help an employer to achieve the most cost effective way of meeting the labour needs of the business, while getting the most out of their workforce.
Provided an employer complies with the rules relating to rest breaks and maximum weekly working hours, they can tailor any type of shift pattern, or combination of shift patterns, to suit the needs of their business and the individual needs of each member of staff. This can, of course, equate to a greater degree of rota planning and staff management, but the benefits of being flexible around shift patterns can really pay dividends in the long run.
Split shift FAQs
What is a split shift UK?
A split shift is one in which an individual’s work schedule is divide into two or more parts. For example, rather than working a typical 9-to-5 shift, an employee may work between 8am-midday and between 4pm-8pm on the same day.
What are the pros and cons of split shift?
The main benefits of split-shifts is providing the employer with cover during busy times, whilst giving the employee time off during the day to meet their own needs and recuperate, although this is only suited to certain businesses.
What is a split week work schedule?
A split week work schedule means a work schedule of not more than 5 non-consecutive work shifts in the period between Monday to Sunday, so having a 2-day break. This is also commonly known as a 5/2 split.
What are split shifts in care work?
Split shifts in care work refer to where the working day is divided into two parts, with those two parts divided by more than an hour’s lunch break. Split shifts will usually be separated by at least 2 hours.
Last updated: 27 July 2023