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Public Safety Scheduling: 8-Hour Shifts

On February 24, 2022

24/7/365 operations require accurate coverage at all times, which is only possible through a schedule that supports your minimum staffing levels. Because the demanding nature of the schedule can be difficult enough, once agencies have ‘something that works’ in place, it can feel impossible to improve to ‘something that works well’. That said, the difference between a schedule that challenges your agency versus one that supports it might not be as impossible as it may seem.


An impactful place to begin evaluating the unique schedule that works for your environment is shift lengths – they can make or break your daily operations in many ways, and directly affect the required headcount needed to meet your needs. This article focuses on the 8-hour shift, and the advantages and disadvantages that often come with it.


In general, many agencies that rely on 8-hour shifts do so based on the belief 12-hour shifts are potentially dangerous, mostly in regards to fatigue. Additionally, 12-hour shifts can be less flexible because holding an employee from an 8-hour shift to a 12-hour is more reasonable than holding a 12-hour shift to a 16-hour. While there is certainly some truth to that, 8-hours do have their own challenges that 12-hours don’t, so there’s no single best approach and will depend on the needs of your agency. Our articles on 10-hour and 12-hour shifts will build upon their advantages and disadvantages in greater detail.


Advantages to 8-hour shifts

The first and most obvious reason agencies gravitate toward the 8-hour shift is its ability to be cleanly divided around 24 hours of operation. With three even sections, it can simplify many scheduling challenges before they arise. Additionally, in the event of an unexpected absence, you can hold one employee over for four hours and bring another in four hours early to efficiently bridge the gap with two 12-hour shifts, if needed. The overall flexibility this provides is one of the primary benefits, especially when 12–hour shifts are viewed as dangerous and inflexible, and 10-hour shifts can be inefficient. 


Another common appeal is for employees it can feel like the most normal way of working their hours as compared to their corporate counterparts and, as a result, feel easier to manage life. From the organization’s perspective, it can be easier to receive buy-in from the employees with this configuration, which may be more challenging in the case of 12-hour shifts or others.


8-hour shifts require less staff to obtain the same required amount of coverage, which can be an especially powerful incentive when combating the industry-wide understaffing crisis.


Finally, 8-hour shifts can simplify time off for employees, especially because government entities usually have employees working 8-hour shifts, meaning this is often how PTO is accrued and processed. In comparison, 10- or 12-hour shifts may require more hours of PTO usage in order to receive the same number of days off, which can be discouraging.


Disadvantages to 8-hour shifts

The disadvantages are not so numerous, but they can be impactful. The most considerable of which is for those who work overnight shifts. If most employees are working five-day work weeks with the majority of their shifts falling somewhere in the 2300-0700 window, it begs the question as to how much of a normal life they can truly lead. In many cases, it can be six days per week, which would also make them consecutive and further fuel the imbalance.


Overtime can further complicate the timeline for overnight workers. Their work-life balance is precarious as is, especially when considering their ability to rest and maintain healthy sleep schedules to combat fatigue. For these workers, the additional four hours to be held over can represent a serious hindrance to that balance, ultimately straining their personal lives far more than it would to someone working a day shift. This can adversely impact mental health, productivity, and challenge both the employee and the agency. The challenges of night shifts are a reality for any 24/7/365 operation, but it’s important to mitigate the impact on employees where possible, rather than downplaying or even exacerbating it out of convenience.


Evaluating the best shifts for your agency

When determining the best course of action for your unique operations, begin by considering what resources you have available in your toolbox. For example, a program to incentivize people to work certain less desirable shifts can help alleviate the perceived disadvantages so the employees who work them feel they have more choice, more reward, and ultimately less reason to vacate the position. For example, if someone meets a certain amount of voluntary overtime, the reward can be an exemption from mandated overtime. Overnight shifts can make it even more valuable to ensure there is an incentive to offset the challenges of regularly working that schedule.


Additionally, the number of employees you have who are fully cross-trained directly improves your agency’s flexibility and adaptability. For 8-hour shifts, cross-training is still beneficial but likely less necessary. So if cross-training is something you want to avoid, 8-hour shifts may support this configuration.


Keep in mind employee preferences, which can vary across departments and will often depend on familial obligations, their personal preference, and how they manage their time. For example, people who are primary caretakers or have more demanding family obligations may prefer 12-hour shifts so they can maximize the number of days off.


Additional considerations

    • Training
      When do you train? Will it affect minimum staffing levels? Always consider your training needs as a part of your scheduling needs, and how it will affect your coverage.
  • PTO/Absences
    As mentioned above, 8-hour shifts are easier to receive time-off and can support creativity, such as asking two people to work 4-hour shifts to cover one 8-hour shift.
  • Overtime
    How many people do you have off-duty if you need to mandate someone in? Generally speaking, 8-hour shifts maximize your ability to mandate because you have two teams of employees before and after the shift, giving you more people available to volunteer or force overtime. This may have the added benefit of enabling you to guarantee that you’ll never mandate overtime on a day-off; those employees can volunteer, but you have enough other candidates that it won’t be forced.


8-hour shifts are the standard for many agencies, but the value of 10-hour and 12-hour shifts is important to factor into your operational considerations. Our next articles will explore those in greater detail to support agencies in their efforts to build the most functional schedule for their managers and their employees.



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