9 Shift Work Roster Tips to Stay in Control of Your Schedule

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How long in advance does your shift work roster/schedule get released? 4 to 8 weeks or maybe it’s more like 3 to 4 months? Seems crazy right?

How are you meant to adequately prepare your roster and more importantly your life, if you have no idea what your social future looks like? No wonder we (sometimes) miss out on events!

Pink background with white mac computer mouse and keypad | 9 Shift Work Roster Tips to Stay in Control of Your Schedule

I often see and hear that parties are being missed, dinner dates being canceled and vacations being postponed due to roster challenges and I think we can do better. This post is full of 9 clever tips and tricks on how to best utilize your shift work roster and achieve balance in your ‘non-traditional’ life.

1. Know “Week 1” and “Week 2” on Your Shift Work Roster

Most shift working organizations work on a 2 week (fortnightly) schedule to best structure the pay weeks and to also create a manageable job for the roster manager/employer. 

If you have the freedom to request, knowing which fortnight/week you’re on allows you to best structure your roster and know when to expect your wage. Yippee!

If you work a rotating shift work schedule, this knowledge is huge as allows you to take significant time off without having to take annual leave, but more on that later.

Tip: Find out how your employer structures the roster and note in your diary or phone. You never know when it may come in handy, plus you’ll need it when completed your annual leave form.

If your workplace is structured on a 2nd weekly basis rather than weekly or monthly, map out on your diary or phone which week is 1 and which week is 2.

If you go through the entire year and map this out you’ll thank yourself later when it comes to filling out leave forms and working out which week you’ll be paid.

If you work the rotating shift work schedule, you’ll enjoy a post we wrote titled, Essential Guide to Working a Rotating Shift Schedule. As a nurse rotating shift work is my bread and butter and I’m excited to share with you how to organize yourself just that bit better.

Epic Roster Tricks Rotating Shift Worker Schedule Made Easy - Computer with paper diary and plant

2. Be Familiar With the Shift Work Roster Lockout Dates

To me, requesting your desired shifts is a no-brainer if you want some control over your work-life balance.

It does take time, thought and repetition but it’s worth every second.

I mentioned earlier that some organizations “lock” the roster, meaning the roster manager is no longer taking requests for a set period of time in the future.

This is done to allow them adequate time to complete and release the upcoming roster without constant changes. 

If you miss this date without requesting any desired days/hours to either work or take days off, you may be stuck with pretty average roster.

Yep –  basically the leftovers (which are normally great from the fridge, but not in this case!).

Our top roster request tip:

Take a screenshot or photograph of the dates finalized by your organization and spend 10 minutes putting all the dates in your phone/diary.

Then, set a reminder for a week in advance to the closing date to give yourself time to think about future events.

Consider even printing it off and sticking it up in the tea-room for everyone’s benefit. This worked beautifully in my workplace. 

If these dates are not made public, make an effort to go and find them or spend time investigating your workplace routine in regards to roster management as variations may exist.

Secret Roster Scheduling Tricks for the Rotating Shift Worker - three people sitting around with paper calender

3. Group Your Night Shifts Together

If working night shift / 3rd shift is part or your routine, try grouping them together to enable more free time and adequate sleep, as constantly swapping is tough work.

Related post: How to Quickly Switch from Night Shift to Day Shift

Generally, 4 nights in a row is my limit before I turn into a grumpy monster.

The other benefit of grouping night shifts together is you’re generally working fewer days as night shifts are longer in duration.

There is also financial (and emotional) benefit here too, particularly when working night shift on the weekends.

As depressing as this arrangement is, my thought has always been that if I need to do nights, why not do it when I can get extra money for working the weekend?

For those new to shift work you might also enjoy reading The Essential Guide To Conquering Shift Work and Secrets to the Perfect Post Night Shift Routine.

Related posts:

I recently stumbled across this book on Amazon titled, Making Night Shift Work: A Practical Guide for the Night WorkerOpens in a new tab.. It’s written by Steve Frei who is a night-shift-working emergency physician for over 30 years. It’s practical and super helpful if you need some night time/morning reading. Check it out here.

4. Request All Your Shifts Together at Either End of the Fortnight

Need a holiday/vacation but don’t have any annual leave? No stress mate!

Try grouping/requesting all your required shifts/hours at one end of the fortnight. This trick is super clever because you’re still working the required hours but you’re leaving multiple days off in a row at the other end of the period.

This allows you to travel simply using days off (or minimal annual leave hours) instead of wasting annual leave.

Yes, you may have to work excessive days in a row to make this possible, but there is an exciting holiday waiting for you at the end. 

I took trips to Bali, Indonesia and Gold Coast, Australia for 8 nights each using this technique! (If this doesn’t make sense, shoot me an email at [email protected] and I’ll explain further).

Epic Roster Tricks Rotating Shift Worker Schedule Made Easy - Mac Book Computer with Calendar on screen-min

5. Discuss Specific Scheduling Techniques Manager/Employer

Organizing the roster is a HUGE job and that opinion is purely coming from observation! 

To fulfill (almost) everyone’s personal requests while making sure the workplace is adequately staffed with the right skill-mix, takes a special person. 

I never truly understood how hard this position was until I started paying attention and asking questions to better understand this delicate process.

My advice is to start observing their fine work early. Make good friends with the roster manager and even invite them to get some coffee and from time to time.

Asking about anything other than the roster is rare to them so go make their day and talk about something different! They will love you for it.

Our top roster request tip:

Learn and understand how they best want you to request i.e – request the entire fortnight even with days available vs only requesting the time off you want.

Also, during your chat, ask if their specific computer program (if using one) enables them to see how much annual leave you have accumulated and even how many professional development day/hours you have remaining.

Knowing this information can save an enormous amount of time in emailing HR or your boss when wanting to go on leave or further your own development.

Related posts:

6. Book and Organize Social Events Well in Advance

Don’t let your friends and family slip away because ‘they never see you’.

After you have made the roster request (even though it’s not a guarantee), make restaurant bookings, buy tickets to a ball game, festival or concert and say yes to attending that party, even months in advance.

The more organized you are here the more fun you will have.  

Our top roster request tip:

Your friends and family will be less likely to cancel last minute because they know how organized you were in making the booking, so don’t be afraid to look super organized.

Also, being friends with other rotating shift workers makes organizing social outings possible when it seems impossible.

I know making friends as an adult can seem weird particularly when exchanging numbers, so try having a drink at the pub after the shift to break the ice first. 

You may also enjoy reading – How To Keep Your Relationship Alive When Working Opposite Shifts

7. Book Vacation Time Early

So you want Christmas or Easter and/or a few public holidays off? You may be dreaming if you want them all off, but it’s worth a shot.

Start submitting your requests and annual leave forms even a year in advance. Seems nuts, but for bigger organizations, it’s kind of an expected thing.

Tip – Even if you don’t have concrete vacation plans for the future, consider booking in some annual leave to rest and simply enjoy time at home.

If money is tight, you don’t always need to venture off on a vacation despite what your mates on Facebook and Instagram are doing.

8. Use a Shift-Working App to Visualize Your Roster

I could be preaching to the converted, but using an app like the brilliant My Shift Planner allows you to visualize your life with pretty, coordinated colors. (see image below)

I am a visual person so this made a huge difference for me and many others.  

If sticking your roster up on the fridge is working, then keep that going. It allows your family to know where you are, but for the rest of you, why not try an app?  

Using a diary was my go-to for years until I started riding my bike to work and it all got too heavy. I am still a paper girl at heart and particularly love this one – Papercode Daily PlannOpens in a new tab.eOpens in a new tab.rOpens in a new tab..

Our top roster request tip:

Be careful when adding in your shifts to either the app or on paper as you don’t want to get this wrong. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Turning up for 1st shift/early shift when you’re actually on a late shift is no laughing matter! 

If your interested in checking out more shift work specific apps to keep you organized, click here.

9. Be Open to Shift Swaps

Finally, there will come a day when you desperately need your shift swapped for an event or emergency. Things happen even if you’re super organized!

Be open to swapping with others in their time of need. Even on a Saturday night, if you’re not busy, because these kind gestures will be returned when you need it most. 

You don’t want to be known as the, “they won’t swap with you, don’t even try” person –  it’s not a title to be proud of and it definitely won’t help you in the long run.

At least make an effort to see if you can swap – even if you know you can’t.


Summary: 9 Shift Work Roster Tips to Stay in Control of Your Schedule

Don’t be a slave to your rotating shift work roster!

Parties need those dance moves, your family deserves your company and that beach somewhere far away has a cocktail and deck chair with your name on it.

For those in the medical, aviation, emergency service and hospitality industries (sorry if I forgot anyone) you know what life is like to be dictated to by your roster and it’s time that stopped.

Try using these 9 sneaky tricks and start making your roster work for you! 


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Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Emma @ The Other Shift

Hey there! I'm Emma Smith a passionate, Registered Nurse from Australia. Together with my husband Daniel, we run The Other Shift. Our sole aim is to help shift workers and those on unusual schedules find balance between work and life. I understand the challenges of fitting in exercise, maintaining relationships and getting enough quality sleep, but I'm excited to show you that it’s possible to do shift work and still thrive. Read more about us and our story here.

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