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Pros and Cons of Having Long Breaks in Shift Schedules

It’s common in many shift schedules, especially ones featuring 12-hour shifts, to build long breaks (4 or more consecutive days off) into the schedule. While some clear social benefits exist for shiftworkers with these schedules, it’s important to evaluate the drawbacks as well.

Not surprisingly, long breaks tend to be very popular among shiftworkers. Often referred to as “mini-vacations,” these extended break periods offer many social benefits, such as allowing shiftworkers to plan family outings, trips with friends, and other fun activities. They also provide opportunities for employees to catch-up on their sleep, as well as plan to perform errands and meet other personal-responsibilities that can be hard to squeeze into the work week.

However, long stretches of days off before night shifts have their challenges as well. For example, these schedules often require working more consecutive days without a break than schedules that don’t feature as many long breaks. While employees might be willing to accept this trade-off, doing so requires paying more careful attention to safety concerns. Because working too many consecutive days can lead to mental and physical fatigue, most experts recommending limiting 8-hour shifts to a maximum of seven in a row, and 12-hour shifts to four or five in a row to ensure a safe workplace and the safety of the workers (Knauth 1993).

Additionally, it is important to take into account that on long breaks, workers are very likely to revert completely to a daytime schedule, thus making the transition back to the night shift more difficult. This physical adjustment back to the night shift also can be compounded by the mental adjustment required to catch up with all the changes that occurred on the job while they were off duty. Thus it is advisable to set up the shift pattern so that people return from the long break onto a day shift, which will ease the transition.

Sources: Knauth P. The design of shift systems. Ergonomics 36 (1-3), 15-28. 1993.


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