What Is Shift Work? (With Examples, Tips, Pros and Cons)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 5 October 2022

Published 27 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Many professionals across industries work in shifts, completing their duties outside of the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday business hours. You can gain shift work in a variety of roles and positions in nearly every industry, offering many options for a successful career. Learning more about shift work can help you determine if it's something you want to pursue. In this article, we explore what is shift work and the industries that use it, what the various shifts are and how to navigate working a career that involves shift work.

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What is shift work?

To understand what is shift work, it's a rotating schedule for working professionals, often to guarantee employee coverage 24/7, especially for operational workplaces. For example, hospitals, airlines and manufacturing plants often have around-the-clock shifts. Employees might work morning, day or night shifts, ensuring coverage across the operation at all times of day. It also might include a rotation of certain days of the week, like working Monday through Friday one week and Tuesday through Saturday the next. Shift work is common in nearly all industries and has pros and cons.

Related: What Does a Shift Manager Do? (With Requirements and Salary)

Pros of working a shift schedule

There are many beneficial aspects of a rotating schedule, including:

  • Greater schedule flexibility to work preferred shifts or schedule around personal obligations

  • Potential to change shifts with coworkers

  • Opportunity for overtime or additional shifts to get higher earnings

Cons of working a shift schedule

A rotating schedule can have challenges, including:

  • Sleep interruption or deprivation from changing shift schedules

  • Lack of established routine or balance with personal life

  • Requests to work additional shifts to cover absences

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What are shift hours?

A shift schedule highly depends on the industry and company you work for, though it typically includes shifts like:

  • Day shift: as a day shift employee, you work daytime hours, often from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. though start and end times can vary.

  • Night shift: sometimes called the graveyard shift, you typically work during the overnight hours on the night shift. For example, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. though hours can have staggered start and end times, depending on the industry or company.

  • Swing shift: a swing shift often overlaps the day and night shift, starting in the mid-afternoon until around midnight. This often helps balance shift coverage in operational settings, especially if there are any unplanned absences.

  • Split shift: a split shift schedule is when you work two separate shifts in the same workday to fulfil your hours. For example, you might work 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., have a four-hour break and come back to work from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. for the second shift.

  • On-call shift: an on-call shift is one that's intentionally unpredictable, where you get called in on short notice to work. Surgeons and doctors are good examples of jobs that frequently have on-call shifts.

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What's a shift-based job and what industries use shift work?

A shift-based job is any employment position that has a rotating shift schedule instead of a fixed shift schedule. It can be for rotating daily shifts, like days, evenings or nights or rotating days of the week off. Nearly all industries have elements of shift work and some industries rely heavily on this type of employment, including:

Transportation

The transportation industry includes taxi and bus drivers, airline workers, train conductors and truck drivers. Depending on your role in the transportation industry, you might encounter shift work. Here are two such roles:

1. Truck driver

National average salary: $35,293 per year

Primary duties: A truck driver's primary job responsibilities include transporting animals, goods and merchandise over long distances. They're required to load and unload goods, refuel the truck, maintain the safety of the vehicle and report any issues or incidents on the road. Truck drivers much have good communication skills, physical stamina and strength.

2. Flight attendant

National average salary: $46,356 per year

Primary duties: Flight attendants are responsible for the safety and care of airline customers. They provide safety information and follow safety guidelines while also offering comfort to travelers, including food and beverages. Flight attendants are usually attentive and good communicators.

Healthcare

Caring for patients experiencing routine or emergency situations requires 24/7 availability so much of the healthcare industry has shift work, including doctors and surgeons. Here are two roles within the healthcare industry that likely involve a rotating or on-call shift:

1. Registered nurse

National average salary: $45,282 per year

Primary duties: Registered nurses monitor patients, provide them with necessary treatment and medications and maintain patient records. They aid doctors and other medical staff in surgeries and treatment, managing patients of all ages, races and backgrounds. Registered nurses may work in a hospital setting, community health centre, physician's office or schools. They are typically strong communicators with a keen attention to detail who are compassionate and empathetic.

2. Physician

National average salary: $104,488 per year

Primary duties: Although there are many types of doctors and specialties, a general physician is responsible for the medical care of a patient. They perform diagnostic tests to determine what's wrong, review patient histories and medical records, make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment plans or follow-up steps. Doctors might work in hospitals, schools, detention centres, military bases or in physician offices and require problem-solving skills, good communication and a deep knowledge of medical procedures.

Retail

The retail industry sells consumer goods and services to customers through online websites and physical storefronts and there's a variety of positions you can hold in this industry, including manager, sales associate or stock clerk. Many stores operate different hours and inventory restocking often happens when shops are closed, so shift work is common. Here are two roles in the retail industry as examples:

1. Cashier

National average salary: $23,674 per year

Primary duties: A cashier is a customer service professional who operates the cash register or point of sales system for a store, like a supermarket, department store or a warehouse center. They may use product scanners to charge customers for their purchases and collect money or payment, like credit cards. Cashiers often have excellent math skills, a friendly demeanour and strong interpersonal skills to work with the public.

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2. Store manager

National average salary: $44,088 per year

Primary duties: A store manager is responsible for the entire operations of a store or place of business. They organise the stock room, employee schedules and hire and train new staff members. Store managers often track sales and revenue to meet operational goals or budgets. A store manager usually has a keen attention to detail, decision-making and problem-solving skills and good communication to interact with customers, employees and leaders.

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Law enforcement and security

Various branches of law enforcement require employees to work shifts, since emergencies and crime can happen at any time. For law enforcement professionals and other first responder roles, you often call the shifts watches, with the first watch, second watch and third watch noting the morning, evening and overnight shift. Here are two examples in law enforcement and security:

1. Armed security officer

National average salary: $37,422 per year

Primary duties: An armed security officer is responsible for the safety and security of a person, place or thing. They patrol, conduct surveillance and ensure general safety and order with armed equipment. They undergo significant training for firearm use, respond to alarms and emergencies and prevent unauthorised access to restricted areas. Armed security officers might work with law enforcement and other agencies. They are attentive, physically fit and have good communication skills.

2. Police officer

National average salary: $40,225 per year

Primary duties: A police officer has various responsibilities involving the safety and well-being of people and their communities. They uphold the law and protect citizens. Some tasks of a police officer include patrolling areas, responding to emergency calls and making arrests. Police officers typically have good physical strength and stamina, an assertive and authoritative personality and strong interpersonal skills to interact with leaders and members of the public.

What are tips for shift work schedules?

Here are four tips to consider if you want to pursue a career that involves shift work:

  • Keep a consistent schedule. Try maintaining a consistent schedule even on your days off to help your sleep cycle, physical and mental health. Consider coordinating personal obligations in a way that complements your work routine.

  • Get on a sleep schedule. A consistent sleep schedule can help your body acclimate to shift work, especially overnights. Consider going to bed the same time each night or getting the same total hours of sleep daily to better regulate your performance level.

  • Be mindful of rotating shifts. Sometimes you can control which shifts you work for an employer, though not always. If you can rotate shifts, try coordinating a switch from day to evening to night shift instead of the other way around to help your natural body rhythm adjust.

  • Limit caffeine and sugar during the end of your shift. Help your body ease into a sleep-ready state by limiting your sugar and caffeine intake towards the end of your shift. This can make it easier to fall asleep once you're home.

Read more: Tips on How to Schedule Rotating Shifts (With Benefits)

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.

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