Why the country’s most popular 12-hour schedule has a problem, and how to overcome it

The problem

The most popular schedule in the country is the 2-2-3 (also called the 2-3-2 or Every Other Weekend Off).  Like most 12-hour schedules, half of the days in the year are scheduled off.  However, what sets this schedule apart is the popular feature of having every other weekend off as a 3-day weekend. 

The 2-week pattern of this schedule is shown below.  As you can see, by going back and forth between weeks 1 and 2, you end up working 2 or 3 days in a row with 2 or 3 days off in a row in addition to the alternating weekends off.

Shift workers tend to love this schedule.  However, our office will get a call about once a month that goes something like this: “We are on a 12-hour schedule and the people hate it.”  When this happens, we immediately know who the usual suspects are.  First, they are talking about the most popular schedule in the country (the 2-2-3) and secondly, the people that hate it are working it at night.

This schedule can be worked as a fixed shift where two crews are always assigned to Day shift and 2 crews are always assigned to the Night shift.  Alternatively, this schedule can have rotating shifts where crews rotated between the Day shift and Night shift weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or at even longer intervals.  In either case, it is always a problem for those working at night.

Let’s look at this schedule as if it was a fixed Day shift.  You can see that the crews work 2 or 3 days followed by 2 or 3 days off.  Every other week they are off on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  A typically 12-hour Day shift is from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm so their sleep pattern on their workdays and days off are probably going to be fairly similar.  This means when they come to work after some days off, they are already adjusted to the shift hours.  Similarly, they are already adjusted to being a “normal” day person on their days off.

Now let’s look at it from the perspective of a shift worker on nights.  With the same pattern, they no longer see 2 or 3 days on and 2 or 3 days off.  They see 2 or 3 days of work followed by a day off spent in bed trying to catch up on their sleep.  This has the effect of them only having 1 or 2 effective days off before returning to work.  Even the first day of their 3-day weekend is often lost to sleep.  Then, when it’s time to return to work, they are only just beginning to adjust to working a night shift (typically 6:00 pm to 6:00 am) before their stretch of workdays is over.  The effect is that they are never truly adjusted to be alert during the nights when they are supposed to be working, nor during the days when they are supposed to be enjoying their time off.

Night shift workers on this pattern typically say, “I feel like I’m either always asleep or always at work.”

If you are on a 24/7 schedule, there is a very good chance that you are nodding in agreement with me at this point.  While none of this is surprising, the solution to it may be.

The remedy and how to go about it

The solution is to allow your night shift and day shift patterns to be different from each other.  You don’t have to make this a zero-sum solution where the Night shift gets a better pattern but only if the Day shift loses its great pattern.  Leave the Day shift pattern in place and offer up patterns that your shift workers may prefer to work on nights.  This can be done with either fixed or rotating shifts.

In addition to offering a different pattern to the Night shift, you may also want to consider educating the workforce on things such as Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Rhythms. 

Shiftwork Solutions can help to address the challenges of this work schedule.  We can collaborate with your workforce and explore several different work schedules along with information about the benefits and downsides of each. We can help them find a work schedule that is both beneficial to them and the company. We also offer education sessions on the body’s biological clock, including a day-by-day sleep/wake strategy for whatever schedule you are on.

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