How to set up, manage and review a shift system

Author: Tony Hatton-Gore


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Shift work

Shift work is work organised to cover extended hours (outside normal working hours) by using a different team of workers to carry out the same roles for different periods of the day. The term "shift" commonly refers to both the work periods and the team of workers.

There are several types of shift pattern: continuous shifts provide 24-hour cover seven days a week, while non-continuous shifts cover lesser periods of time such as extended working days for less than 24 hours, or for less than seven days per week (see Shift patterns).

Historically, shift working has been associated with manufacturing companies and other industrial plants that use shifts in order to maximise the leverage from capital investment in plants and machinery, as well as organisations that provide a 24-hour service such as utilities, emergency services, air traffic control and computer operations centres. However, it is increasingly used in service industries such as call centres, and in businesses that provide personal services such as restaurants and convenience stores.

Businesses that could favour the use of shift work include those with:

  • relatively low labour costs compared with capital investment (for example in manufacturing plant or technology);
  • high depreciation of plant, for example in sectors where technology is developing quickly;
  • the potential to reduce production costs due to continuity of operation; and/or
  • a need to meet a demand for services outside normal office hours, possibly 24/7.

Introducing shift work

Employers looking to introduce a shift system should determine whether or not there would be sufficient suitable volunteers for shift work from the existing workforce and whether or not suitable workers would be available for recruitment.

Shift working enables the organisation to carry out its activities for extended periods but at a price - the disadvantages of shift work for employees mean that it typically carries a premium in terms of pay (see Shift premiums), and the organisation has the overhead of managing shifts (see Managing shift workers). If the business requirements change, for example for commercial or technological reasons, care needs to be taken in managing the associated changes to terms and conditions for shift workers that may be required, including any change in shift patterns (see Employment contracts).

For employees, there is usually the opportunity to earn a higher rate of pay but individuals may need to manage issues related to disruption to or lack of sleep, physical and mental health problems and dislocation of the regular daily rhythms of family and social life. There are implications for the employer in managing the risks associated with fatigue and the impact on the productivity, and health and safety of shift workers. However, some workers may have lifestyles or personal circumstances that make them particularly suited to shift working.

Shifts are often rotated, ie workers change their working hours periodically, but it is also common for workers to work the same shift on an ongoing basis. There have been shown to be physiological advantages to working a regular single shift, and some workers prefer to do so - this is often the case for the night shift.

Shift patterns

Shift patterns and rotation vary greatly between organisations because of the variety of operational needs. The most common shift patterns include the following:

  • Double-day or two-shift working. This is most commonly two eight-hour shifts, perhaps from 6am to 2pm (often known as the "early" shift) and from 2pm to 10pm (the "late" shift), or two 12-hour shifts to cover 24 hours. Workers often rotate between the shifts with time off between the different shifts to facilitate the transition from one shift to another.
  • Continuous two- or three-shift working - sometimes referred to as "continental shifts". These provide 24-hour cover seven days a week. They are typically resourced by four or five groups of workers rotating to a different shift after a few days and taking a break of a few days between shifts.
  • Non-continuous three-shift working. These shifts are typically three eight-hour shifts to cover 24 hours, typically Monday to Friday. Employees typically work one week on each shift before rotating the following week.
  • Permanent night shifts. Arrangements vary, but 12-hour shifts from 6pm to 6am are common.
  • Permanent morning shifts. These are used most often for domestic staff and cleaners, who may work 6am to 12pm or 7am to 3pm.
  • Twilight shifts. These are designed to cover the hours up to midnight, typically from 6pm to midnight, but exact timings will vary.

For more detail on shift patterns see Survey analysis > Shift working survey 2015 - pay and working patterns.

When choosing the appropriate shift pattern, employers will need to determine what additional hours need to be covered - for example 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday, or 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Other issues that employers could consider when choosing the appropriate shift pattern(s) for their organisation include:

  • the specific business objective(s) for introducing or changing shift patterns, and the criteria for success;
  • the nature of the service or manufacturing process;
  • the need to build in flexibility to vary capacity with peaks and troughs in the business requirements;
  • the type of work being carried out and the need for ancillary or support services for shift workers;
  • the availability of the skills required and the need to offer an attractive package to shift workers;
  • the cost of shift work, including the additional burden of compliance with employment regulations (for example in relation to night workers);
  • handover arrangements and continuity of service, for example in a "follow-the-sun" operation that provides 24-hour cover to a global community;
  • health and safety implications, such as maintaining workers' alertness outside normal daytime hours, managing fatigue, and providing occupational health and wellness services to employees;
  • the management and supervision of shift workers, including maintaining shift workers' standards of behaviour and organisational values;
  • the pressure to reduce hours of work for individuals by changing shift patterns; and
  • whether or not local or industry practice favours certain shift systems.

Shift premiums

Employers typically pay employees a premium for shift work to recompense the disruption to normal life arising from working unsocial and/or irregular hours, such as the implications for social and family life and for the employees' health and wellbeing. Typically, the greater the disruption, the larger the premium.

When determining the level of shift premiums, employers should take into account the shift pattern - including associated time-off arrangements, the frequency of shift rotation and market practice.

There are a number of types of shift premium that employers can use:

  • Fixed percentage allowance. This is the most common form of shift premium and comprises a fixed percentage addition to basic pay. The highest percentages (which may be 30% or more) are typically paid for two-shift continuous shift patterns and permanent nights.
    Percentage allowances are popular among employers because they do not need to be adjusted to take account of changes to basic rates of pay because increases in basic pay feed into the shift premiums.
  • Flat-rate hourly pay. This is an additional rate per hour for the hours spent on shift work. Again, permanent night shifts normally attract the highest rates.
  • Annual cash allowances. This is an adaptation of the flat-rate method and most likely to be used for salaried staff.

For more details on typical shift premiums see Survey analysis > Shift working survey 2015 - pay and working patterns.

Employers should conduct a regular review of their shift premiums. Although fixed percentage allowances tend to remain unchanged for many years, employers should monitor market practice to ensure that the rates are competitive and that the organisation is not overpaying. Flat hourly rates and annual cash allowances are likely to change more frequently, and employers should look to review them annually against market practice. Employers should also review their shift premiums if shift patterns or hours are changed.

Employment contracts

Employers will need to ensure that shift-working terms are set out in the contract of employment - for more information see Policies and documents > Shift allowance contract clause. This will need to cover:

  • a statement to the effect that shift working is a requirement of employment, for employees who are required to work shifts;
  • a statement to the effect that the employee may need to undertake shift work, for employees who may be required to work shifts, and the period of notice that will be given for shift working to commence;
  • the shift pattern, including an example of a complete shift cycle with hours worked on each shift and how rotation, including days off, is managed;
  • the organisation's reservation of the right to change or withdraw shift working for any reason (for example to reflect business need or technological changes);
  • a clear statement of shift premiums and how they are paid; and
  • the organisation's reservation of the right to amend shift premiums.

Managing shift workers

Employing shift workers opens up some management issues that do not occur with staff working normal working hours. Employers can ensure effective management of shift workers by:

  • providing a suitable level of trained supervision for shift workers in order to address operational issues and maintain standards - this should include access to senior management and familiarity with disciplinary and grievance procedures so that matters do not take longer to resolve because of shift working;
  • enabling appropriate access to senior management - this can be achieved through an on-call system, and regular visits on shift and by holding meetings during shift workers' hours, particularly where there is important information to relay or issues to discuss;
  • taking care to invest in effective, tailored employee communication and consult appropriately on employment matters, just as they would for non-shift workers;
  • providing facilities to support employees in working hours (such as kitchens, rest areas and amenities) and occupational health and employee wellbeing support to deal with the effects of shift working; and
  • making available to shift managers, supervisors and workers the same opportunities for training and career development, supported by performance management systems, as for those employees not on shifts.

Employers can help to mitigate the impact of shift working on employees by offering a regular, predictable schedule, a good working environment (in relation to lighting, clean air, heating and air conditioning and noise level), and allowing employees time to adjust to shift rotations and changes to shift patterns.

Working hours

The Working Time Regulations 1998 (S1 1998/1833) limit the number of hours that employees can work to an average 48 hours per week. Employers should be aware that employees who work in excess of an average 48-hour week will need to sign an agreement to opt out of the limit on maximum weekly hours stipulated in the Working Time Regulations 1998. For more information see Liveflo > Obtain a worker's agreement to opt out of the 48-hour working week.

Adult workers are entitled to a minimum daily rest period of at least 11 consecutive hours in each 24-hour period during which they work for the employer; and an uninterrupted weekly rest period of at least 24 hours. However, the rights to a minimum daily and weekly rest period do not apply in relation to shift workers when they change shift and cannot take a daily or weekly rest period between the end of one shift and the start of the next, or to workers engaged in activities involving periods of work split up over the day. For more information see Employment law manual > Working time > Rest breaks and rest periods > Exception for adult shift workers.

Night workers

Night workers are subject to special provision under the Working Time Regulations 1998. There is a limit of eight hours work at night in any 24-hour period, over a reference period of at least 17 weeks. Where a night worker's work involves special hazards or heavy physical or mental strain, there is a limit of eight hours on the worker's actual daily working time. The limit must be observed in any period of 24 hours during which the night worker performs such work.

Employers must also offer a free health assessment to any worker who is to become a night worker, and the opportunity to have further assessments at regular intervals. The purpose of the assessment is to determine whether or not the worker is fit to carry out night work. For further information see Employment law manual > Health and safety > Specific vulnerable people > Night workers.

Shift swaps

Shift workers may wish to arrange to swap shifts among themselves. Employers should be clear on whether this is an acceptable practice, and if so, establish a policy to manage swaps in such a way as to ensure proper coverage of the business (in terms of skills and capability as well as resource levels), compliance with employment regulations (on working time) and effective cost management.

The policy should support the swapping of shifts between appropriate employees (ie those who do similar types of work at different times of day) and specify the process for agreement of the swap between the employees and for seeking the employer's agreement in advance.

The employer may wish to restrict the extent of shift swapping - for example by authorising only those shift swaps between workers on the same rate of pay or grade or with equivalent qualifications such as first-aid training.

For further information see Policies and documents > Shift-swap policy.


Statutory annual leave is 5.6 weeks per year, or 28 days for an individual working a five-day week or more. It may be easier to calculate holiday entitlement for shift workers in terms of how many shifts the individual should have off, as in the following examples:

  • If the shift pattern is three shifts on a weekly rotation (say eight hours per shift; morning, afternoon and night; Monday to Friday) then the average working week is five eight-hour shifts. The annual leave entitlement is also 5.6 weeks x five shifts = 28 eight-hour shifts.
  • If the shift pattern is four 12-hour shifts, followed by four days off, then the average working week is 3.5 12-hour shifts. The annual leave entitlement is 5.6 weeks x 3.5 shifts = 19.6 12-hour shifts.

Calculating a week's pay

If a shift worker's pay varies from week to week, for the purposes of calculating holiday pay, a week's pay for a shift worker is based on his or her average earnings in the 12 weeks preceding the start of the holiday. A week's pay is calculated by multiplying the average weekly hours worked during normal working hours in the relevant 12-week period (the total hours worked during the 12-week period, divided by 12) by the worker's average hourly rate in respect of that 12-week period (total remuneration for the 12-week period, divided by the number of hours worked).

Reviewing shift work

Employers should conduct regular reviews of their shift working arrangements. The primary consideration must be that the arrangements continue to be the best solution to meet the demands on the business. This may be related to the need to provide continuous cover, such as for the emergency services and utilities companies, or to enable maximum production to gain leverage from capital resources, or based on specific time frames, such as the harvesting and processing of agricultural produce.

Changing circumstances may prompt a review of shift arrangements, for example in the case of technological development or a change of demand by geography affecting requirements for time-zone coverage. When changing shift patterns the employer should ensure that any employees who have been working shifts and receiving a shift premium are properly consulted. Failure to pay shift-related payments might constitute an illegal deduction from pay.

Ongoing management of shift workers

It is critical that employers maintain management and supervisory capacity to manage shift workers, especially night workers. Employers should be aware of the demands of shift work on employees and the implications for workers, and ensure that supervisors and experienced staff are available on all shifts. Consultation with supervisors and experienced shift workers is likely to aid understanding of the operational issues of shift working and the implications for workers on different shift patterns.

Care should be taken to maintain channels of communication to ensure that shift workers do not feel isolated from the rest of the organisation. Different types of shift pattern may generate different management issues. Comparison of 12-hour and eight-hour shifts has shown that 12-hour shifts are seen as more attractive for employees, as they allow them better opportunities for sleep, and family and social life. On the other hand, there may be a greater occurrence of fatigue among employees working longer shifts, with a potential impact on safety and productivity.

Employers may find that employees on some shift patterns take up other work during their non-working time. This may lead to such employees not having the rest and recuperation intended, which may have a negative impact on their wellbeing, safety and productivity. If there is significant risk the employer should consider introducing a no-moonlighting policy to protect the interests of the business.