Managing 24/7

The Book of Shift Schedules:

4 Shift Scheduling Lessons


In the late 1980s, CIRCADIAN® hired a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to write down every shift schedule that could be conceived. When the professor reached 500 schedules (with many more still undocumented schedules to go), CIRCADIAN decided to publish these schedules in a large compendium.  

We thought providing a “Book of Shift Schedules” would be a great resource for our clients.  Oh boy, were we wrong! The following months taught us some very valuable lessons about shift scheduling.

Lesson 1) A Book of Schedules Created Confusion

Instead of helping managers at shiftwork operations, the book ended up confusing them. Time and again, we would receive the following call from someone who purchased the compendium:

“I reviewed the 500 shift schedules in this book… Now, how am I supposed to figure out which schedule is right for my operation?”

The honest and simple answer:  Finding the “right schedule” is more complicated than picking a schedule from a book and hoping for the best. Each plant site and each group of shiftworkers is unique, and the "best" or optimal shift schedule can only be achieved through a logical, systematic search for the scheduling solution that appropriately balances management, health, and safety criteria, as well as the needs of the greatest proportion of the workforce.

In other words: the key to finding the right schedule has more to do with who chooses the shift schedule, and how they choose it, than the schedule itself.

Lesson 2: A Book of Schedules Led to Management-Mandated Schedules

In addition to calls from confused managers, we also received calls from frustrated/angry managers. These calls typically went something like:

“We were having issues with our shift schedule, so we bought your book of 500 shift schedules. After reviewing the schedules, our management team picked a schedule and implemented it. Now, our employees are even more unhappy with the schedule and our turnover and absenteeism rates are going up. What’s going on?”

There are good and bad ways to change shift schedules. The worst way is for management to select and mandate a new schedule with limited employee involvement.

The problem with management-mandated schedules is that they  often do not properly take into account the needs of employees and can result in increased employee fatigue, decreased morale, turnover, and absenteeism, and therefore sub-optimal 24/7 facility performance.

Similarly, task team and benchmarking approaches often fail to achieve consensus, and frequently overlook critical issues that arise from implementing the schedule change...creating costly oversights and negative employee reactions.

Lesson 3: Employees Should be Involved in the Schedule Selection Process

As it turns out, employee participation in the process of designing and implementing a new work schedule is just as important as the characteristics of the new work schedule itself.

Since the release of the “Book of Shift Schedules”, studies comparing schedule implementation methods have shown that employee involvement in schedule redesign considerably increases the benefits compared to schedules changed by management mandate alone (Ala-Mursula et al. 2002, Bradley, 1991, Holtom et al. 2002, Smith et al.1998), including:

•    increased worker satisfaction with schedule design
•    decreased unscheduled absences from illness
•    maintained teamwork among employees as well as in-role and extra-role performance on individual levels
•    decreased physical and psychological circadian malaise and overall tiredness associated with shiftwork
•    improved daytime sleep quality
•    improved quality of employees’ home and social lives
•    decreased turnover and number of vacant positions
•    increased organizational commitment
•    improved employee understanding of administrative issues involved in management of the facility
•    reduced employee complaints like:

Lesson 4: Be Prepared to Manage Conflicting Interests

A shift schedule change is a highly complex and volatile issue that can easily become divisive and counterproductive if not developed properly:

•    The conflicting interests of the parties involved, and difficult labor-management relations, often complicates the successful selection and implementation of a new shift schedule.

•    At the company or corporate level, there may be concerns regarding financial aspects and production needs.

•    From the employees' side, there may be resistance to change due to insecurity about dealing with new conditions, as well as fear of loss of money or jobs.

•    Conversely, there may be a desire to change expressed by some segment of the workforce, usually for personal reasons that may be inconsistent with the company’s needs.

To reach a compromise between operational constraints and employees' preferences, which are key to the success of the new schedule, the involvement of both labor and management in the process of developing and implementing the new schedule is essential.

Moreover, the participation of a neutral, subject matter expert has proved extremely beneficial in providing objectivity and the technical and facilitation support, as well as managing the conflicting interests to achieve an acceptable compromise.

Conclusion: Finding the “Right” Schedule Starts with the Process 

The success of the work schedule in meeting the goals of maximized productivity and safety of the workers and minimized operational costs and risks to the facility will depend greatly on who chooses the work schedule and how they choose it. Facilities in which employees are consulted during the scheduling process experience fewer accidents, improved morale, decreased absenteeism and turnover, and optimized production levels.

Employee-driven scheduling processes, in which operational requirements, employee preferences, and physiological factors are optimized, represent the best approach to designing and implementing new shift schedules.

For more information about scheduling, or details about how to implement an employee driven Shift Schedule Optimization Process in your workplace, please call CIRCADIAN at 781-439-6300 or email a specialist at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Ala-Mursula L, Vahtera J, Kivimaki M, Kevin MV, Pentti J. (2002) J Epidemiol
Community Health 2002 Apr;56(4):272-8 Comment in: J Epidemiol Community Health.
2002 Apr;56(4):244-5. Employee control over working times: associations with subjective
health and sickness absences.

Bradley DJ, Martin JB (1991) J Soc Health Syst 1991;2(2):8-23 Continuous personnel
scheduling algorithms: a literature review.

Aguirre A, Moore-Ede A (2007) Circadian Information, LP. Shiftwork Practices 2007.

Holtom BC, Lee TW, Tidd ST. (2002) J Appl Psychol 2002 Oct;87(5):903-15 The
relationship between work status congruence and work-related attitudes and behaviors.

Smith PA, Wright BM, Mackey RW, Milsop HW, Yates SC. 1998: Scand J Work Environ
Health;24 Suppl 3:55-61 Change from slowly rotating 8-hour shifts to rapidly rotating 8-
hour and 12-hour shifts using participative shift roster design. levels.

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For over 30 years, CIRCADIAN has been helping shiftwork operations around the world.  Feel free to contact us by clicking here.


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