A systematic review of the sleep, sleepiness, and performance implications of limited wake shift work schedules

Michelle Short, Alexandra Agostini, Kurt Lushington, Jillian Dorrian

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    40 Citations (Scopus)


    Objectives The aim of this review was to identify which limited wake shift work schedules (LWSW) best promote sleep, alertness, and performance. LWSW are fixed work/rest cycles where the time-at-work does is ≤8 hours and there is >1 rest period per day, on average, for ≥2 consecutive days. These schedules are commonly used in safety-critical industries such as transport and maritime industries. Methods Literature was sourced using PubMed, Embase, PsycInfo, Scopus, and Google Scholar databases. We identified 20 independent studies (plus a further 2 overlapping studies), including 5 laboratory and 17 field-based studies focused on maritime watch keepers, ship bridge officers, and long-haul train drivers. The measurement of outcome measures was varied, incorporating subjective and objective measures of sleep: sleep diaries (N=5), actigraphy (N=4), and polysomnography, (N=3); sleepiness: Karolinska Sleepiness Scale (N=5), visual analog scale (VAS) alertness (N=2) and author-derived measures (N=2); and performance: Psychomotor Vigilance Test (PVT) (N=5), Reaction Time or Vigilance tasks (N=4), Vector and Letter Cancellation Test (N=1), and subjective performance (N=2). Results Of the three primary rosters examined (6 hours-on/6 hours-off, 8 hours-on/8 hours-off and 4 hourson/8 hours-off), the 4 hours-on/8 hours-off roster was associated with better sleep and lower levels of sleepiness. Individuals working 4 hours-on/8 hours-off rosters averaged 1 hour more sleep per night than those working 6 hours-on/6 hours-off and 1.3 hours more sleep than those working 8 hours-on/8 hours-off (P<0.01). More broadly, findings indicate that LWSW schedules were associated with better sleep and lower sleepines in the case of (i) shorter time-at-work, (ii) more frequent rest breaks, (iii) shifts that start and end at the same clock time every 24 hours, and (iv) work shifts commencing in the daytime (as opposed to night). The findings for performance remain incomplete due to the small number of studies containing a performance measure and the heterogeneity of performance measures within those that did. Conclusion The literature supports the utility of LWSW in industries where individuals sleep at or near the workplace as they facilitate at least some sleep during the biological night and minimize deficits associated with time-on-shift with shorter shifts. Overall, the 4 hour-on/8 hour-off roster best promoted sleep and minimized sleepiness compared to other LWSW schedules. Nevertheless, and considering the safety-critical nature of industries which employ LWSW, the limited literature needs to be greatly expanded with specific focus on the consequences for performance and comparison to mainstream rosters.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)425-440
    Number of pages16
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2015


    • Continuous operation
    • Performance
    • Split shift
    • Split sleep
    • Sustained operation


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