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changing shift patterns guide

Changing to new Shift Patterns

If your Company is thinking about changing to new Shift patterns. We describe the processes involved to do this. If you have any questions, please call us.

click here to see the Changing Shift Patterns Guide

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about creating a staff schedule on computer.

Human Resource Management:Training in Staff Rostering

What are the health effects on Shiftworkers'?

What's the difference between a 'Staff schedule', 'staff roster', 'rota' or 'off-duty'?

Program Specification

Is it possible to use a spreadsheet to do the schedule(roster).

Can anyone use Visual Rota?

Is it possible for the computer to select the staff for each shift?

Linear programming, simplex method. What are they.

What calculations does the program do?

What is a 'What If Analysis'?

What about staff requests?

How does the program save me money, Opportunity costs, perishable hours?

How much Sickness is there in our organisation?

My manager is very anti computer. Any help would be appreciated in talking to my manager.

Can it work on our network or does it need a PC?

Scheduling of overtime equitably and fairly( Q from South Africa)

* * *

What are the health effects on Night Shiftworkers'?

Problems include;
short term;
sleep disruption

long term;
gastrointestinal disorders;
loss of appetite,
stomach pains,
peptic ulcers,
The above are caused by changes in central nervous system & endocrine mechanisms.(meal time change causation).
More diabetes?? Possibly caused by irregular food intake and timing of medication.
Epilepsy?? Possibly caused by sleep deprivation increasing the chance of a seizure.

Coronary heart disease.
Mortality?? maybe, very few articles with comparison data, but maybe rather than a definate no.
Psychiatric Disorders, shiftworkers have more.
Divorce?? I haven't seen that mentioned yet, but intuitively I would guess shiftworkers have more marriage breakdowns.
Social isolation from family & friends.

Good Points

Working shifts does have many good points which go a long way to mitigate any effects of shift work at nights. Examples. Children related duties and child care is easier when both parents are working. Similarly, looking after aged or infirm relatives. Hobbies and activities that require day light, such as playing golf, fishing, gardening. Commitments such as doctor & dentist visits would not need a day off work

What's the difference between a 'Staff schedule', 'staff roster', 'rota' or 'off-duty'?

Staff Schedule or Roster?. In Visual Rota, the terms schedule and roster mean the same, its just that in England, the term schedule is never applied to humans, only timetables and machinery. In England, where the program was developed, we call a Staff Schedule three different names, it is known as; a 'staff roster', 'staff rota' or more simply as 'the off-duty'. The term 'rota' began in Roman times and meant a cycle, as in rotation. The first written evidence of using the English word 'rota' was about 1650. The term roster comes from the Dutch word for gridiron, hence a grid is a pattern of parallel lines. The word in American usage means a list of names, such as officers or regiments, first used around the mid nineteenth century. The English usage started this century. The appearance of a 'roster' as a grid has remained unchanged because it is the most efficient method of displaying staff names, dates and shifts. We have used that 'look' in Visual Rota. A grid is very efficient at inputting alecrmation into the computer and for displaying the results. Our look, or grid, enables you to schedule up to 67 staff for up to 38 days at a time on each sheet and still be able to printout the schedule on one sheet of A4 paper. Organisations with hundreds of staff will have broken the staff into units, sections, departments, wards and zones. Visual Rota mirrors the organisation and has one file for each. The use of 'off-duty' was first used in the 1920/1930, as in, what people would do when they were 'off duty'. It became particularly applicable to nurses living in Nurses Homes.


  1. It had to be easy to use with the computer monitoring me all the time to stop me doing something wrong and telling me what was wrong.
  2. It had to allow me to allocate shifts and change them around, whilst always counting up how many staff are on duty simultaneously.
  3. It had to allow me to enter sickness, holidays, lateness, extra hours, staff requests and anything else I use to create the off-duty.
  4. And then it had to convert the shifts into hours paid so that I could eliminate hours of error-prone hard work.
  5. It had to allow me to save more time by using a similar staff schedule(roster) from one month to the next, but at the same time allow holidays, staff requests, etc.
  6. It had to look like a typical schedule(roster), both on the screen and when printed out.
Scheduling staff is a very important and time consuming duty, invariably a task that is performed by the most Senior Nursing Staff. Whilst the aim of the schedule is to organise the staff in order to ensure that the patients have the best possible care, conversely it does take the Senior Staff away from caring for patients. A computer program that could shorten the process of doing the Off-Duty by 90% and give a better overall standard of care would be an invaluable tool. Now there is a program to do just that, designed to be totally reliable and compatible with a Nurse's requirements. The program is totally new. Unlike other systems Visual Rota totally eliminates the need for pencil and paper.

The program is designed to be used by Nurses and in order to assess how the program works, the best person is a Nurse currently having to do the off-duty , or rota, in addition to yourself. Please give me an e-mail if you wish to discuss how the program can help your hospital/home.

Visual Rota 2 will enable you to create staff schedules(rosters) using the computer just as you do at the moment, manually on paper but its even easier to use. There are many features to the program which will enable you to do far more than just create rosters. Some of the features include:

We have designed the program deliberately so that the program is very easy to use and training is not an on-going expense. Look at the videos on our website(Windows95 only at the moment) and they show you in a few minutes everything you need to know. The best way to start using the program is re-create your existing staff schedule(roster), the program will happily cope with your methods of working.

If you have any questions, please e-mail me on the above address.



Is it possible to use a spreadsheet to do the schedule(roster).

Many computer users think that it must be possible to create a schedule(roster) using a spreadsheet. This is because the final version of the Schedule(roster) looks like a grid or spreadsheet. However, whilst many things are possible, the spreadsheet was not designed for such uses. The ability to transform a word such as 'E' or 'Early' into staff on duty in the morning is not a programmable function. Also, every person using the spreadsheet alters the calculations by inadvertent use of the move, copy, paste, etc. functions. I know because I've tried.

Can anyone use Visual Rota?

Visual Rota has been designed for anyone to use regardless of their computing experience. The only problems that we hear about are related to losing files because of inadvertently saving the files to directories(folders) elsewhere in the computer, which is related to people's inexperience in using 'Windows'.

However, whilst anyone can schedule staff, it is inevitably the most senior that actually do the job, and the reason why they have to do this particular task, is because only the most senior staff can resolve disputes about which shifts staff work. Get the schedule right and no one notices, get it wrong and everyone moans. One of the calculations that the program does, is to calculate how many 'Earlies' and 'Lates' everyone works, and then everyone can see that the system is fair.

Is it possible for the computer to select the staff for each shift.

Not yet, because computers are too slow and the language of computers stops them from doing 'human' tasks.

Also, because of government legislation and libel laws this will never be possible, if you want the best possible staffing of your shifts. Government legislation does not allow us to discriminate between sexes, races and disabilities. Libel laws do not allow us to record libellous comments about our staff, no matter how true they are, unless we can prove them. Hence, whilst we may know the work-shy, the incompetent, the overbearing, the bullies and numerous other very human traits, we have no means of alecrming the computer of them. The computer would then have to choose the staff almost at random, based on very little alecrmation other than staff experience and willingness to work specific shifts.

Whilst the program was being developed it was quickly realised that a computer cannot take over the intellectual task of matching staff members to shifts. The reasons for this are simple. Selecting a team is a very personal selection process, with very slight nuances counting for a lot. Imagine having to select the a football team from the same squad of players, the chances of any 2 people selecting exactly the same squad are hundreds to one, and we all accept that sort of variation of team selection as normal. Now imagine writing a set of guidelines, or rules, for the computer to follow that would produce a team that both you and everyone else agrees is right for the job at hand. The computer could produce an staff schedule(roster) of sorts, but, it wouldn't be as good as your selection and that would leave you frustrated, especially if you could do it quicker as well. Computers are fast at calculations, but the sheer weight of possible combinations of staffing far exceeds the computers capacity. Did you know that there are 21 different ways that a person can work any 5 days out of 7 (to put this into context, a different weekly shift pattern can be work for 21 weeks), and 3 million different ways that a person can work any 20 days out of 28. And this without the added complication of which shift is worked on any day. 2 possible shifts a day increases the '5 shifts in 7 days' total number of different ways to 672 (context; 13 years before you have to repeat a week's pattern). For 20 shifts in 28 days there are 3 million million different ways(context; 10 times longer than the Universe has been in existence before you repeat a pattern). For 2 people working together over 28 days, for each of the 3 million million possible shift combinations of the first person, the second person can work 3 million million combinations, making a very impressive 10 million million million million shift combinations for just 2 members of staff, and a third member would increase this total to 30 million million million million million million shift combinations. By the time we get to the 10th member of staff, there are 10 to the power 123 combinations. Of course, most of these combinations are ridiculous and programs can be written to shorten the process substantially, however, for an establishment of 50 staff say, there would be billions of combinations which would match any rules you want to use, and yet most still wouldn't work in practise. The ability to roster staff is a very intelligent human ability, which works amazingly fast. The computer has enough difficulty, in fact it is almost incapable of recognising when someone who has just worked a Night shift will be available to work next. Some staff can work the next night shift, others need to miss a whole 24 hour period to work a day shift, others can work an evening shift the same day, it is an individual specification and computers have a problem with trying to convert human behaviour into rules, as Spock, from Star Trek, would say, 'it isn't logical'. This has been the problem with other attempts at computerising the off-duty. It just cannot be done - easily.. The human brain can and does recognise that people will not always be available to work the shifts we would like them to work, and that's why, with Visual Rota human intelligence is a very important element of the program.

Human intelligence compulsively recognises patterns in almost everything, and has the ability to relate disparate objects into a pattern. We can recognise, effortlessly, which staff work together and which don't, or when a person is working hard and when they are skiving. These sort of judgements are easy for us to do, and yet, impossible to program a computer to do, especially if you want an answer immediately.

The beauty of the Visual Rota program is that all the repetitive manual tasks are taken over by the computer leaving the operator free to use their intelligence to create the off-duty. The repetitive tasks are;

Linear programming, simplex method. What are they.

Problems such as; A manufacture makes 2 products using 2 machines for each product which have a limited capacity and the products cost different amounts to make, sell for different prices and have different levels of profit, can be solved using linear programming. Another problem of this sort is; the cheapest way of supplying a number goods to a number of shops from a number of depots, all numbers being small, ie less than 4. A computer can quickly tell you which mix of the above variables will produce the maximum profit or cheapest method. When the number of variables increase, then there is no longer a programmable solution, and in order to solve a problem of this sort, we use the simplex method. The simplex method starts with an initial guess at the correct solution, the solution is examined against the criteria and the direction in which the solution should go is also determined. Another guess at the solution is made in the indicated direction and the process is repeated until the'best' solution is found. This process takes a long time once we start wanting a roster for 50 staff for 1 week, and literally impossible to do for longer periods. Various attempts have been made at solving staffing problems using these methods, unfortunately, people are not machines or goods and they have rights and agreements. Solutions to problems such as the manufacture above, often have the machines standing idle in order to produce the maximum profit and that isn't seen to be a problem, and they never have a legal requirement to regulate their production. Asking your staff to stand idle to maximise your profits is asking for trouble. These sort of problems also require vast amounts of data to be known in detail, otherwise there is no possible solution. In a fluid situation such as staffing, we don't have the luxury of time to gather detailed data, input it into the computer and process it, and, we don't need to anyway. We are able to see the solution to staffing problems much faster than a computer ever could, hence we are able to produce a new staff schedule quicker than we could feed the alecrmation into the computer that it needs in order to produce a solution, so we would never bother to do it. Hence, chess is played by humans much better and quicker than by computers even if Big Blue did win a game occasionally. Visual Rota works differently to this type of linear programming because we realised how pointless it is until computers can learn for themselves.

What calculations does the program do.

Every time an entirely new shift is entered into the computer, a shift wizard springs into action and ask a series of questions about the shift, such as 'is it an early or late shift', 'how many hours are paid for working the shift'. From the answers a shift is defined and stored for later use. Then, whenever a shift is allocated to a member of staff, the simple data associated with that shift is used in over 20 calculations to produce a comprehensive picture of staffing levels, hours worked and costs involved in running the organisation. These calculations are done simultaneously and instantly, if you make a change of shift, the effect of the change is shown there and then. At the moment the only sort of calculation possible with a manual method of scheduling is that at some stage, you will count the number of staff on duty. The program eliminates all of that hard labor. For each time period, be it monthly or 5 weekly, the program produces around 10,000 discrete items of data which are variously summed and totalled for you to use in your management analyses. This data can be used for budgeting, research, optimisation, opportunity costs, etc.

This ability of the program enables you to perform 'What If....' type analysis.

What is a 'What If Analysis'?

A 'What if' analysis is used to determine the outcome of a particular action or combination of actions. Examples would 'What if I increased pay rates by 5%, how much would it cost?' or 'What if we changed the shift start and finish times, would people still work their contract hours, or would we have to renegotiate?'. These types of analysis are carried quickly and easily using Visual Rota, because it has been specifically designed to do that task.

What about staff requests?

There are several methods of recording staff requests straight into the schedule (roster).The request is entered directly into Visual Rota as a shift or comment and can be annotated as such. These requests can be entered as far into the future as you like, so holidays, training days, etc. do not leave you short staffed.

Requests are particularly easy to do, because its a simple matter to change the staff around on the computer screen. A request for a day off, still means that they have to work another day instead, and so you change the days around for one member of staff, look how this effects your staffing levels and make the mirrored change in the shifts of another member of staff. Job finished in no time at all and everyone is satisfied.

No more request books, notes or scraps of paper.

Requests are regarded by the person doing the schedule as a pain in the neck. However, they are to a large extent vital in ensuring that the so-called 'graveyard shifts' are adequately staffed. A request for time off to attend a function shifts the emphasis from the Friday/Saturday night focus to some other time during the week. Then the 'graveyard shift' becomes secondary in importance. Also, knowing that you can allocate them a Saturday night shift weeks in advance using Visual Rota in exchange for their request tends to stop trivial requests.

How does the program save me money,Opportunity costs, perishable hours?

The key to this question is over-manning and opportunity costs. Staffing hours are a perishable item. The staff schedule allocates staff to tasks. If the task does not materialise or disappears, or there are excess staff to perform the allocate tasks, then the staffing hours can be regarded as perishable. The money spent on these perishable staffing hours is wasted. This waste can be compounded by artificially allocating tasks in order to use the 'excess' time productively. The tasks allocated often involve resources, such as training, supervision and materials. If these tasks do not increase value, productivity or turnover, then perhaps there is a better way of using these perishable staffing hours.

The program will immediately show you if you have excess staff on any shift. Action can immediately be taken to reallocate staff elsewhere. If you are regularly over-staffed, then this can be scheduled and used. Most organisations are undermanned at certain times of the year, such as school holidays and over-manned at other times such as between holidays. A lot of effort is then spent reorganising the work to fit this oscillating pattern. Therefore, at times of under-manning, equipment is left idle, wards are closed, etc. and at times of over-manning there is never enough equipment or materials to go round. This oscillating pattern shows an organisation in a bad light and hence artificial names are given to cover it up. We introduce training, special cleaning, sorting, filing and catching up with the paperwork sessions on full days and blame personnel or finance on empty days.

Opportunity cost is an important concept for decision making purposes. Although often difficult to measure, the concept is of great importance because it emphasises that decisions are concerned with alternatives and that the cost of the chosen plan of action is the profit foregone from the best available alternative. An example, a nurse is late on duty by one hour. The other staff members have coped well enough and the schedule has not been delayed by the absence. The nurse volunteers to work through lunch, or stay behind to make up the time. The best plan of action in this sort of scenario is to accept the offer of making up the time but to reject the lunch or afterwork period until there is a real need. There will be at some point in the future an occasion to use the hour when someone else is late on a following shift and you need someone to stay at work to cover. Also, it is worth while investigating why an absence at the start of a shift did not hold up the schedule and perhaps make it a permanent feature of that shift.

Over-manning falls into two categories, hours worked and personnel numbers. We sometimes talk in terms of full-time equivalents when we have a mixture of full-time, part-time, students and agency staff. There are some very large long term savings by reducing overall numbers of staff. The following list of 30 items are costs associated with employing more part-time staff rather than fewer full-time staff. Uniforms, Meals, Drinks, Supervisors, Training, Presents, alecrmation distribution, Communications, Bank Holidays, Accommodation, Staff rooms, Electricity, Gas, Water, Equipment, Accountancy, Furniture, Advertising positions, Telephone calls, Transportation, Insurance, Litigation, Stationary, Office costs, Administration, Statutory sick pay, Statutory maternity pay, Lateness, Excessive staff breaks, Agency labor costs, Pensions. It is possible to establish the cost of each item and include that cost into everyone's pay rates.

Visual Rota will convert all the shifts worked by everyone into hours and give the total for each day as a total and split into the 5 zones. It will also convert the hours worked into cash totals by using an hourly rate of pay. This can be the hourly rate each person earns, or include state taxes and the above costs. These are calculated as the schedule(roster) is created. For organisations that have similar workloads every day, then the hours worked every day by the staff should total up to be the same from day to day. Also the cash totals should be the same. 'Surely the cash totals will vary because the staff are paid different rates based on seniority?', I hear you say. If everyone is on the same grade, this question does not apply, but where seniority is inherently better paid why would we expect the totals to be the same. Because, the senior staff are balanced by the junior staff to ensure that the skills mix throughout is identical. If the cash totals vary, then so will the skills mix from shift to shift, and that is bad for morale and the image of the organisation. If these are problems in your organisation, then using Visual Rota could point out where the problem stems from.

Back to the daily total for hours worked. If each day the work is the same, then the hours worked each day are the same. If the hours worked each day are varying, then there is a cost associated with that variation. By looking at the days where the hours worked are least, then as long as the work schedule was completed, this is the maximum number of hours required each day. Any days where the hours worked exceeds that maximum are days that are over-manned. This is the opportunity cost. If you decide that it is worth having this additional cost for what ever reason, then at least you will know how much it is costing you. You could, alternatively, take steps to reduce this opportunity cost.

You could ask staff to postpone shifts to a later time, perhaps months ahead and work on annualised hours. This produces the maximum savings immediately. A long term strategy could produce the very best results by introducing new shift patterns, start and finish times and recruit new staff with new contracts of hours worked. Introduce new patterns of shifts, go from shifts per week to shifts per month, go from a pattern of (5on, 2off) each week, to (7on, 3off) & (8on, 3off), or (10on,5off) & (11on, 5off). These types of shift patterns remove the problems of having prime numbers because they add up to 30 or 31 days rotation (ie. days in a month) but average out to working 5 days/week.

If you decide to keep things the way they are now, at least you will how much extra profit you are foregoing.

How much Sickness is there in our organisation?

First problem, define sickness. Second problem, calculating it. This problem is organisation dependent, and whilst it could be defined as 'unauthorised absence when scheduled to work due to ill-health' this is difficult to measure in an organisation that works shifts, 7 days a week. In an office working Monday-Friday, it is obvious when some one is absent for a day, or a week or more. Shift working where staff can be scheduled absent for periods of 3,4,5 or more days between periods on duty, and who have the ability to swap shifts with fellow workers to increase the period of absence, makes calculating sickness very difficult. And, at the end of the day, if every shift is fully manned because you have been able to re-organise the shifts to take account of absences, are you that bothered about rates of sickness? Probably not.

Sickness is a problem when you are short staffed and when staff go sick with no notice - that's when you notice the problem. The table below gives rates of sickness by industry in terms of days off per year. The health industry rate of 10 days per annum can be put into context as follows. If you have scheduled 25 staff to be on duty during a 24 hour period using trained staff, care staff, night staff, ancillaries, then every day, one of them will be off sick. You won't know in advance which member of staff it will be, hence you cannot plan cover, or even re-allocate tasks. This topic is covered in more detail an alecrmation page. Assuming you have a system of indicating when staff are off sick, then Visual Rota gives you the ability to colour code days off sick for easy recognition at a later date, even if the sickness was on days off or swapped days. Then you can plan your schedules anticipating a level of sickness.

Table from CBI & Institute of Management Management Today magazine Feb 1998 p85 (UK)

Rank Sector Av. no. of sick days/employee

1st Government Agencies 10.6

2nd Education & training 10.4

3rd NHS Trusts(healthcare) 9.9

4th Local Government 9.2

20th Hotels & Leisure 4.6

My manager is very anti computer. Any help would be appreciated in talking to my manager.

With regards to senior staff that are not computer friendly, this is a difficult area and one we commonly meet. Most nursing staff are wary of computers and when we were trialing the program to hospitals in our early days we found many senior staff had no key board skills and no mouse skills. When someone has difficulty finding an E on a keyboard, its very difficult to persuade them to see how easy a program is to use. One of our earliest sales to a nursing home group had the matron of one home dictating to her secretary where she wanted each shift, however, after all the staff names were input and she started on the shifts, thats when she got the hang of the keyboard, ie when she only had to memorise a few letters. I think thats the basic problem, initially there is a big learning hurdle to overcome, followed by small chunks which are easy to learn. I have included a section on 'change' and staff on the website (see the bottom of our first page) and perhaps it is relevant to your situation In the past, I have taught computing to many beginners. I am an engineer and used to work at the stress office Rolls Royce, Derby. I taught new comers how to use 'finite elements' in under 3 days compared to the months it used to take to teach them. The method I used was to show them how to make their existing job extremely easy by using the program and produced results which had taken them weeks by hand. This method of teaching fired their enthusiasm no end and they literally taught themselves. When the IBM PC came out in 1982, I had one at home and I persuaded the management (equally computer phobic) to buy ONE for an office of over 100 staff. I started to use it for my work only and curiosity being what it is, my friends and colleagues soon started watching me over my shoulder and asking questions, mostly about their work and could it be done on the IBM. (I was using Lotus 123 for analysis work) The answer was obviously yes. Within a week, we had to instigate a booking system, limit everyones time on the machine and have the office open until midnight and at weekends to satisfy the demand. However, did this convince the management that PC's were fantastic, not one bit, it took months to persuade them to part with the money for more machines. The point of this story is, I think, people are very wary of new things which they cannot see an immediate use for and the only way to convince them otherwise, is to teach them by example. Try showing your manager the video, if your manager had to do rotas at one time, she might look beyond her phobia.

Can it work on our network or does it need a PC?

With regards to networks. If you can use other Windows program on your network, you will be able to use Visual Rota. We can e-mail a dummy program that you can all the facilities on your network and if that works, so will the actual program.

Scheduling of overtime equitably and fairly( Q from South Africa)

I enjoyed answering this question because it showed me how quickly we forget the bad old days when staff grumbled about the number of shifts and hours they worked and whether we were fair about 'earlies' and 'lates'. We built into the program a 'fairness' set of equations and allowed the staff to see the results on a continuous basis. Every time we printed out the schedule, it included a total of all their shifts, how many were earlies and lates, how many hours they worked, and, most importantly, they could see everyone else's as well. On the video look for the columns B, C, D on pages 'All' & 'Hours/Payroll'.

(Ans to Q)

"3 calcs that the program does(because we also used to suffer from staff complaining that we weren't fair about shifts and hours) are 1. The number of shifts everyone works, 2.The number of earlies & lates everyone works, 3.The number of hours everyone works, during the time period of the schedule, say 4 weeks. Once the staff saw the reality, rather than their perceived reality, all the complaints stopped immediately. As we previously explained to them, it wasn't in our interests to be unfair, and now they could see that we weren't. When we do our schedule, its available for everyone to check before its finally published."