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What Does 'Variable Shift' Mean on a Job Application?

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Not all jobs offer the standard 9 to 5 work schedule. Some professions require workers to work variable shifts. While some workers like the varied hours and days that variable shifts offers, others find it difficult to adjust to an ever-changing schedule. Variable job schedules often offer the benefit of higher wages, but often come with a price, including health problems.

Common Work Shifts

Businesses such as neighborhood bank branches, insurance agency offices and management companies typically work one shift per day, often 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. All full-time employees work the same shift, every day of the workweek. Part-time employees might work mornings or afternoons, but the hours and days they work remained fixed. We often refer to these 9 to 5 schedules as “normal” business hours.

But some businesses operate outside of normal business hours, which requires workers to cover more than one shift. For example, a restaurant might need workers for breakfast, lunch and dinner shifts. A call center might operate from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and need workers for two shifts. An airport, which operates around the clock, 365 days per year, would need workers to cover three 24-hour shifts.

What Is a Variable Work Schedule?

Variable shifts – also called rotating shifts – are one way employers schedule employees to cover 24 hour a day, 7 days per week operations. Instead of working a traditional eight-hour day, or a four-hour day for part-time workers, employees work longer hours in a day, but fewer days per week.

Some hospitals offer variable shifts to nurses and other medical personnel. Instead of working a traditional eight-hour day, five-day workweek, a nurse might work three or four 12-hour days, followed by three of four days off. In a varied hours job, the hours and days an employee works typically change from week to week. For example, one week a nurse might work Monday through Wednesday, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The following week she might work Sunday through Tuesday, 12:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.

Other types of variable shifts might rotate working hours on nonconsecutive days. For example, a part-time factory worker might work from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. on Saturday.

Variable Shift Industries and Jobs

Variable shift work is common in numerous industries and types of careers. Hospital workers such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and laboratory technicians often work variable shifts.

Variable shifts often apply to public safety workers, including police officers, firefighters, prison guards, security guards and emergency medical technicians.

Retails workers, store managers, stock clerks, cashiers and customer service associates often work variable shifts. Many hospitality employees work variable shifts, including servers, cooks, bartenders, casino workers and hotel staff.

Other Types of Work Schedules

The workforce operates on many types of work schedules. Some workers work a fixed schedule during a first, second or third shift; the hours and days of the week they work do not vary.

Flexible schedules allow employees to choose the hours of the day they want to work, as long as they finish their work and work the required hours. Some companies offer flexible schedule to workers who perform duties that are not time sensitive.

A compressed workweek schedule allows workers to work more hours per day, but fewer days per week. For instance, a worker might work four 10-hour days, instead of five 8-hour days.

Split shifts require workers to work two shifts in one day, with a break between shifts. For example, a waiter might work the breakfast and dinner shifts, with a four hour break between shifts.

Variable Shift Pros and Cons

Variable shifts have advantages and disadvantages. A variable shift offers some variety to your schedule, but you must be able to easily adapt to working different hours of the day.

In some jobs, workloads may vary according to shift. Variable shifts allow workers to balance the amount of work they do by varying the times of day they work.

Workers who work nights during a varied schedule often receive a pay differential, which means more money in their paychecks.

People who work variable shifts often have sleep difficulties. Many have trouble falling asleep, especially during daytime hours, and some fall asleep during their work shift.

Some variable shift employees experience irritability due to sleep deprivation. This can lead to problems at work or in interpersonal relationships with friends and family members. Sleep deprivation can also cause depression, gastrointestinal problems, unhealthy eating habits and decreased mental clarity. Some sleep-deprived workers increase their use of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and drugs.


Michael Evans’ career path has taken many planned and unexpected twists and turns, from TV sports producer to internet project manager to cargo ship deckhand. He has worked in numerous industries, including higher education, government, transportation, finance, manufacturing, journalism and travel. Along the way, he has developed job descriptions, interviewed job applicants and gained insight into the types of education, work experience and personal characteristics employers seek in job candidates. Michael graduated from The University of Memphis, where he studied photography and film production. He began writing professionally while working for an online finance company in San Francisco, California. His writings have appeared in print and online publications, including Fox Business, Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool and Bankrate.

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