The Continental shift pattern is a work schedule in which 4 teams work together in 8-hour shifts to provide 24/7 coverage.

Table of contents
  1. What Is the Continental Shift Schedule?
  2. Who Uses the Continental Shift Schedule?
  3. Benefits of the Continental Shift Pattern
  4. Drawbacks of the Continental Shift Pattern
  5. Is the Continental Shift Schedule Right for Your Team?
  6. How To Implement a Continental Shift Schedule
  7. Conclusion

If your business operates 24/7, you need a work schedule that balances around-the-clock coverage with adequate employee rest. One solution to this is the continental shift pattern.

In this guide, we explain how the continental shift pattern works and take a look at its benefits and drawbacks to help you decide if it’s right for your team.

Key Takeaways

  • The continental shift pattern requires 4 teams of employees working 8-hour shifts. Employees work 7 consecutive days followed by 2-3 days off.
  • This shift pattern requires employees to rotate between day, swing, and night shifts every 2-3 days for 24/7 coverage. You can’t assign employees to fixed shifts in a continental shift pattern.
  • The continental shift schedule is good for businesses in healthcare, manufacturing, and other industries that have high-stress shifts.
  • It’s also best if you have an equal distribution of work between day, swing, and night shifts.

What Is the Continental Shift Schedule?

The continental shift schedule is a 24/7 work schedule that involves 4 teams of employees working in 8-hour shifts.

Each team of employees works a schedule of 7 days on followed by 2 days off. After three 7 on, 2 off periods, each team gets an extra rest day. This creates the 28-day work schedule known as the continental shift schedule.

To achieve 24-hour coverage, this schedule requires 3 shifts, typically called day, swing, and night shifts.

A day shift, sometimes called a morning shift, might run from 7:00 am-3:00 pm, while the swing shift might run from 3:00 pm-11:00 pm and the night shift might run from 11:00 pm-7:00 am.

Of course, you can tailor the exact hours of these shifts to your business.

Employees rotate shifts from day to swing to night throughout the course of each 7-day work period according to this flow:

Week 12 day shifts2 swing shifts3 night shifts
Week 22 days off2 day shifts3 swing shifts
Week 32 night shifts2 days off3 day shifts
Week 42 swing shifts2 night shifts3 days off

The rotating shifts ensure 24/7 coverage. Importantly, not all teams start at the same point in the schedule. One team starts on week 1, another starts on week 2, another on week 3, and the final team on week 4. This staggering ensures that on any given day, 3 teams are covering each of the shifts and 1 team is resting. 

Here’s a diagram that shows how the continental shift pattern works in action. Orange indicates a day shift, blue indicates a swing shift, purple a night shift, and white a day off.

Diagram of a continental shift schedule showing 4 weeks of work. Separate colors represent day, swing, and night shifts.
Separate colors represent day, swing, and night shifts.

The continental shift schedule resets every 28 days and the 4-week cycle begins again. On average, employees work 42 hours per week with this schedule. Their busiest week of work requires 56 hours (7 consecutive days of 8-hour shifts) and their lightest week of work requires 32 hours (4 consecutive days followed by 3 days off).

Who Uses the Continental Shift Schedule?

The main advantage of the continental shift schedule is that it allows employees to work 8-hour shifts instead of longer 10 or 12-hour shifts, which are required by other 24/7 work schedules. With 8-hour shifts, employees have time to relax and recover from one day to the next.

So, the continental shift pattern is commonly used in industries where shifts are relatively high-stress or require careful attention to detail. Common examples include:

  • Healthcare
  • Trucking
  • Manufacturing
  • Energy
  • Law enforcement

Benefits of the Continental Shift Pattern

The continental shift pattern has several key advantages for businesses and employees.

24/7 coverage with shorter shifts

First, businesses get 24/7 coverage with this work schedule while still adopting standard 8-hour shifts. These shorter shifts can be very good for employees because they reduce stress and give employees more time to recover between shifts. That can reduce employee burnout, which is a major concern when operating a 24/7 schedule.

📚 This Might Interest You:

Check out our guide to spotting, tackling, and preventing employee burnout.

Shorter shifts also ensure that your employees aren’t mentally fatigued by the end of their shifts, which can result in costly mistakes or accidents. So, this schedule is especially good for work processes that require attention to detail or involve handling dangerous equipment.

One nurse wrote, “I LOVE 8 hour shifts and the loss of them drove me out of acute care… 8 hour shifts allowed me to get the sleep I needed in order to be functional.”

High degree of predictability

The continental shift pattern’s 28-day cycle offers a high degree of predictability. If employees know where they currently are in the cycle, they can easily determine which upcoming shifts they’ll work. The cyclical nature of this schedule is also good for employees’ work-life balance because they’re able to plan their lives outside work weeks or months in advance.

In addition, the continental shift pattern ensures that employees get 1 work-free weekend every month. That’s not guaranteed with many 24/7 shift patterns and can be important for employees to spend time with family and friends.

Shifts rotate forward

The continental shift pattern enables employees to rotate shifts from day to swing to night to days off. This “forward” rotation is better for employees’ mental health than backwards shift rotation. Employees can push back their schedules with each shift transition, then have 2-3 days off to recover after working night shifts.

Shifts are equally distributed

In a continental shift schedule, each employee works the same number of day, swing, and night shifts in each 28-day cycle. That ensures no employee is saddled with an excessive number of undesirable night shifts. Equal shift distribution can reduce conflict among employees and make your schedule seem fairer, which is good for employee morale.

Drawbacks of the Continental Shift Pattern

The continental shift pattern isn’t perfect. Here are some of the drawbacks to keep in mind when considering this work schedule.

Employees work 7 days in a row

The biggest drawback to the continental shift pattern for many businesses is that employees must work 7 days in a row.

That’s not ideal for employees, who will likely feel overworked by the end of each 7-day stretch. They could be fatigued on days 6 and 7, increasing the likelihood of mistakes and accidents.

One worker said on Reddit, “I once worked [the continental] schedule while covering for a nurse that was on a leave of absence and I burned out SO FAST with that kind of schedule.”

In addition, no matter how you define your workweek, employees will work more than 40 hours per week during some workweeks under this schedule. You’ll need to pay non-exempt employees overtime for these weeks. This can increase the cost of running your business.

💡 Pro Tip:

Even though the continental shift pattern requires you to pay overtime, it still requires less overtime than many alternative 24/7 work schedules. For example, in the DuPont schedule, employees work up to 72 hours in a single week. The Pitman schedule requires employees to work a 60-hour week every other week. 

Fast shift rotation

The continental shift schedule requires employees to switch from day to swing to night shifts every 2-3 days. That’s a fast shift rotation compared to other 24/7 patterns, and it can throw off employees’ circadian rhythms. Employees who are up early for a day shift on Monday may be very tired by the end of a swing shift on Tuesday, for instance.

The fast shift rotation can also be difficult for employees to manage in their personal lives. For example, employees may have trouble finding consistent child care because they work at different hours on different days of the same week. They may also have difficulty establishing routines with family and friends—for instance, employees working a continental shift schedule won’t be home for family dinner on a consistent basis.

Doesn’t enable fixed shifts

Some 24/7 schedules enable you to assign employees to fixed shifts—that is, 1 team always works the day shift and another always works the night shift. That isn’t totally possible with the continental shift schedule. For this shift pattern to provide full coverage, employees must rotate shifts.

That reduces your flexibility when shift planning and limits your ability to tailor the continental shift pattern to your employees’ needs.

We tested out this schedule ourselves to discover if a fixed shift variation is possible. We discovered that, to incorporate fixed shifts, one team must still rotate shifts to fill in for whichever of the remaining teams is off. Here’s what this can look like: 

Diagram of a continental shift schedule variation showing 4 weeks of work. Separate colors represent day, swing, and night shifts.
Fixed shifts can work on a continental shift pattern but still require one team to rotate shifts

This variation might work for companies that have employees who desire fixed shifts. 

💡 Pro Tip:

The southern swing shift schedule uses the same 7-2-7-2-7-3 on-off schedule as the continental schedule, but employees rotate from day to swing to night shifts after each 7-day work period rather than within each work period. Some employees may find it easier to adjust their sleep schedule when using this slower rotation.

Is the Continental Shift Schedule Right for Your Team?

The continental shift pattern can work well for many business operations, but it’s not right for every situation. Here are some things to consider to determine if the continental shift schedule is right for your team.

How stressful are shifts?

The main benefit of the continental shift pattern compared to other 24/7 schedules is that it offers 8-hour shifts instead of 10-hour, 12-hour, or longer shifts. 8-hour shifts can be very helpful if your employees work in stressful roles and longer shifts could lead to burnout or accidents.

If your business’s shifts are relatively low-stress or don’t involve dangerous equipment, you may consider an alternative schedule with longer shifts. The Pitman, Panama (2-2-3), and DuPont schedules all involve 4 teams working 12-hour shifts and could be worth considering. 

Do employees need longer breaks?

The continental shift pattern offers employees just 2-3 days off between work periods. This may be sufficient if employees’ work periods aren’t overly stressful. However, if work periods are more tiring, you may need a schedule that offers employees more consecutive days off. Options to consider include the 4 on, 3 off shift pattern and the 6 on, 4 off shift pattern.

Are workloads equal across shifts?

Another important consideration for the continental shift pattern is whether workloads are balanced across day, swing, and night shifts. Since this schedule requires shift rotation, it works best if each shift has a roughly equal amount of work for employees to do. Otherwise, you could be overstaffed on your swing and night shifts. 

One solution to this is to have some employees work a continental shift schedule and others work a fixed shift. As an example, say you need 10 employees for your day shift and 5 for your swing and night shifts. You could have 3 teams of 5 employees each working a continental shift schedule, plus an additional 5-10 employees who work day shifts only.

Alternatively, you could choose a schedule that caters to uneven work requirements between shifts. For example, a 24 on, 48 off schedule can be effective when employees only work intermittently or have 8 hours of hard work followed by 16 hours of relatively easy work.

📚 This Might Interest You:

Discover our guide to 24/7 shift schedules, which discusses the 24 on, 48 off schedule and various other schedules.

How To Implement a Continental Shift Schedule

Switching from your current work schedule to a continental shift schedule can be a big transition. Here are 3 tips to ensure your implementation goes smoothly.

Check local labor regulations

Some states have rules you must follow when making major work schedule changes. For example, in California, employees must vote to approve an alternative work schedule such as the continental shift schedule. Also, in some places, like Illinois, employees must be given 24 hours of rest within every 7-day work period, so the continental shift schedule isn’t possible unless you’re exempt from this requirement.

It’s a good idea to talk to a labor attorney so you don’t unintentionally violate any regulations that apply to your business.

💡 Pro Tip:

In addition to considering labor laws, pay attention to any collective bargaining agreements your organization is a part of, as these might contain provisions about work hours, rest periods, and schedules that might impact if and how you implement a continental shift schedule. 

Talk with your team

Before switching to a continental shift schedule, be sure to discuss the change with your team. It’s important to get employees on board with the new schedule by clearly explaining its benefits, answering their questions, and addressing their concerns. The more you involve your employees in the implementation process, the more likely they are to support the new schedule.

If several employees are against a continental shift schedule, hold off on the transition and consider other work schedules.

💡 Pro Tip:

Even if most employees are on board with switching to a continental shift schedule, some employees may decide to leave your company ahead of the transition. Plan ahead for this so you’re not understaffed when you implement the new schedule. You can anonymously survey employees using a survey app like Connecteam to determine if any plan to quit and start your hiring process early.

Use scheduling software

Scheduling software like Connecteam can help you manage your continental shift schedule.

With Connecteam, you can create this work schedule once, then use it as a template for each future 28-day cycle to save time.

An illustration showing Connecteam’s scheduling interface

Employees can check their schedule on their phone and get shift reminders as push notifications.

In addition, Connecteam makes it easy to track employees’ working hours and attendance, ensuring you accurately calculate overtime and benefits like paid time off.


The continental shift pattern enables you to operate your business 24/7 while requiring employees to work 8-hour shifts only. It’s a good option for businesses that need continuous coverage but don’t want to burn out employees with longer shifts.

Work management software like Connecteam can make it easier to implement various schedules—including the continental shift schedule—and manage your employees. It enables you to create schedules in minutes, communicate with employees about work, track hours, and so much more. 

Try Connecteam free today to see how it can help your business run 24/7.

Want more great articles straight to your inbox? Subscribe Here ⤵