Find the right shift pattern for your body clock

Image of Dr Sophie Bostock
by Dr Sophie Bostock

Fixed vs. rotating shifts
In an ideal world, we’d all work during daylight hours, but if that isn’t possible, it’s generally better to stick to a stable routine for at least two weeks at a time than to rotate more frequently. Rotating shifts are like a state of perpetual jet lag (without the air miles). The more time you have to adjust between different shift types, the better.

Rotate clockwise
Most people have a natural sleep-wake cycle of just over 24 hours, and find it easier to adjust to extend wake time than to cut it short. This means it’s less disruptive to move from daytime shifts to evening shifts, and then to night shifts.

Extended shifts need extended recovery
Extended duration shifts, which involve working for more than 8 hours, are typically associated with more sleepiness and a higher risk of accidents. However, researchers have shown that one 12 hour day shift, followed by 24 hours of free time, then one 12 hour night shift and two full rest days, results in similar levels of sleep, safety and fatigue to 8 hour shifts (Fischer et al. 2016).

Larks vs. Night owls
If you’ve always woken up early and feel energized in the mornings, you will probably find it easier to adjust to early morning shifts than a natural ‘night owl’. If your employer can be flexible, ask to experiment with different shift types for at least a month at a time. When you find one that suits you, ask if you can stick with it.

Is there another option?
Some people find it easier to adapt to working shifts than others. If your internal clock has a hard time adjusting, be especially careful to protect your sleep time and investigate whether you could work a regular day shift.

Next: Optimize your schedule for night shifts

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