What is The Panama Schedule & Should Your Team Consider It?

Panama Schedule

It’s a common misconception that most companies operate on a 9-5 schedule or employ a three-shift schedule (morning, afternoon, and night/graveyard). 

In fact, many companies and industries benefit from shift work where employees rotate on a 12-hour shift schedule. This offers 24/7 coverage of all business operations. 

In this article, we’ll discuss one of these employee scheduling plans, the Panama Schedule, and explore how it works. Then, we’ll highlight the pros and cons of a Panama schedule and offer seven best practices to implement it successfully. 

Finally, we’ll discuss three common alternatives to the Panama Schedule. 

This Article Includes:

(Click on the links to jump to a specific section)

Let’s get started. 

What is a Panama Schedule? 

The Panama Schedule follows a slow rotation system with four teams across two 12-hour shifts. 

Team members follow the below schedule: 

  • Two working days. 
  • Two days off.
  • Three working days. 
  • Two days off. 
  • Two working days. 
  • Three days off. 

As a result, it’s often called the 2-2-3 schedule. 

You can refer to the example below for a monthly team schedule. 

WeekMonTuesWedThursFriSatSun
1Day/NightDay/NightOffOffDay/NightDay/NightDay/Night
2OffOffDay/NightDay/NightOffOffOff
3Day/NightDay/NightOffOffDay/NightDay/NightDay/Night
4OffOffDay/NightDay/NightOffOffOff

Typically, a team on a morning shift will stay on for 28 days, then move to the night shift. 

It has a repeat cycle of 56 days, meaning the morning shift mentioned above will switch back to the day shift after 56 days. 

The Panama schedule is ideal for:

  • Businesses providing 24/7 customer service. 
  • Law enforcement, medical, and emergency services. 
  • Infrastructure support companies. 

What if you have employee training or administrative tasks to manage during this schedule? 

Then, you can implement the Panama Plus Schedule! 

Panama Plus Shift Schedule 

The Panama Plus shift pattern includes five teams alternating between working 12-hour shifts and 8-hour shifts. The eight-hour shifts are only on the weekdays. 

After eight weeks of shift work, each team works the 8-hour weekday shift for two weeks. This pattern repeats for about 40 weeks. 

The weekday shifts help employees catch up on administrative tasks and are useful for employee training programs. 

Let’s briefly explore some other benefits and drawbacks of the Panama schedule. 

Pros and Cons of the Panama Schedule 

While there are some obvious benefits to the Panama schedule, like 24/7 coverage, there are also some disadvantages. 

We’ll look at the pros first. 

A. Pros of the Panama Schedule 

Long shifts can help employees focus on a specific project for longer, meaning they can finish the task before their shift ends. Since the same person works on the job from start to finish, it allows for quality control

Long shifts are also beneficial to the company. 

When employees are working 12 hour days, you can afford to hire fewer people. This allows you to divert funds to other business areas. 

It may feel like employees on a 12 hour shift work less as they get more days off. But they’re actually working the same average hours as a regular full-time employee, sometimes more!

So, the quantity of work produced doesn’t suffer either. 

Additionally, employees may often get long weekends ((Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) off, leading to a better work-life balance. This, in turn, reduces employee absenteeism due to immovable appointments as employees can schedule those for their days off. 

B. Cons of the Panama Schedule 

Working a 12 hour shift can be exhausting. Employees may have a tough time staying alert, especially if it’s a night shift. 

Research has found working long shifts (over 8 hours) can increase stress levels, cause poor eating habits, and lead to longer sleep cycles during off days. 

All of this contributes to worker fatigue

Working long hours and chronic sleep deprivation can negatively impact the immune system response, leaving employees more at risk for inflammatory or autoimmune diseases. 

Since a 12 hour shift is most commonly found in manufacturing industries, fatigue can cause serious accidents —for the employee or their team members. 

Let’s look at how you can safely implement a 12-hour rotating schedule without increasing employee risk. 

7 Best Practices to Successfully Introduce a Panama Schedule 

When assigning employees to long shifts, especially long night shifts, you should consider the following safety aspects. 

1. Carefully Consider Start Times 

Research says that starting work between 8 pm and 11 pm causes maximum worker fatigue

So, while making shiftwork scheduling decisions, ensure your night shift employees start work after midnight. 

Similarly, starting work early in the morning, before 7 am, can disrupt the body’s regular circadian rhythm. This could contribute to an overall feeling of tiredness and drowsiness. 

Additionally, employees who rely on public transportation may be unable to commute to work during these times. 

2. Keep an Eye on New Employees 

Any employee can develop sleep issues leading to increased errors in the workplace. 

However, new employees unused to longer shifts or rapid schedule changes are particularly susceptible to these side effects. 

Routinely following up with your employees and keeping a close eye on new ones for signs of fatigue (yawing, dozing off, etc.) can help you proactively rectify the issue. 

3. Maintain a Well-lit Environment 

Maintaining a well-lit, bright workplace can help counter the effects of drowsiness. 

How? 

Our circadian rhythms depend on light exposure. The more exposure to light, the less melatonin is released, leading to employees feeling more awake. 

Even intermittent exposure to bright light (roughly 9,500 lx) every 90 minutes can cause a significant shift to employees’ circadian rhythms. 

As a result, they’ll stay alert longer and quickly adapt to different shifts. 

4. Encourage Productivity Breaks 

Uninterrupted long shifts can feel tedious and dull. 

To help your employees stay alert through their shift, you can encourage them to take regular breaks

For every hour of work, employees can take a short break to stretch their legs, take a brisk walk, or even exercise a little. Doing so will help them feel more alert and engaged in the workplace

If you’re in the USA, it’s important to note that 12 hour shift employees are entitled to a 30-minute meal break in most states. 

5. Establish a Dedicated Napping Area 

Workplaces with long shifts often have a specially designated nap room so employees can get some shuteye during their breaks. 

You can also turn a conference room or spare office into a nap room. Just stock it up with some dark blinds, comfortable pillows, and soft blankets! 

Employees can also use this room to take a nap before driving home after their shift, reducing road accidents due to drowsy driving. 

6. Discuss Carpooling Options 

You can encourage employees to carpool to work to reduce drowsy driving-related accidents.

Not only is this a more environment-friendly choice, but it will also help employees stay awake on the road. 

You can also start a shuttle service, so employees don’t have to worry about the work commute – whether through public or private transportation.

7. Provide Adequate Days Off 

After a block of night shifts, the industry standard is to offer employees at least 24 hours off to recuperate. The Panama schedule ensures this by giving at least two day weekends for every block of shifts. 

However, longer consecutive shifts may require a higher number of days off. 

For instance, if you use another week shift plan, like the 4 X 4, you need to provide a long weekend as employees work consecutive long shifts four days of the week.

Fortunately, you can keep track of these days through Time Doctor, a powerful employee productivity management tool. 

Its Work Schedules feature allows you to create customized timesheets for individual employees and apply the same schedule to multiple employees. As a result, you can quickly check when they’re working. 

Learn more about how you can overcome the 8 common employee scheduling issues.

Now, let’s explore some Panama plan alternatives.

3 Common Panama Shift Schedule Alternatives 

The Panama schedule isn’t the only 12 hour shift around. 

Here are three common alternatives to the Panama shift schedule that you can implement instead. 

1. The DuPont Schedule 

Used since the 1950s, this schedule’s name comes from the company that introduced it.

Over four weeks, each team works:

  1. Four consecutive night shifts, followed by three days off.
  2. Then, three consecutive day shifts followed by a day off. 
  3. Three successive night shifts, followed by three days off. 
  4. Finally, four consecutive day shifts, with a seven-day off period. 

In total, each team member works about 42 hours per week. As a result, it’s often used in manufacturing, power, and chemical industries. 

A DuPont work schedule for a single team would typically look something like this: 

WeekMonTuesWedThursFriSatSun
1Night NightNight Night OffOffOff
2Day DayDayOffNightNightNight
3OffOffOffDayDayDayDay
4OffOffOffOffOffOffOff

The primary benefit is employees get long stretches of downtime between shifts and a guaranteed week off every month. 

However, consecutively working long shifts can lead to increased fatigue. Once every four weeks, employees also have to work 72 hours a week. 

This schedule also requires each employee to put in roughly two hours of overtime per week

Additionally, it can be hard to readjust circadian rhythms after a couple of night shifts. Some employees may also find it challenging to get back to work after a week off. 

2. Four On, Four Off (4 X 4) 

In this shift plan, employees work for four days/nights consecutively and get four days/nights off. 

While it differs in every company, employees can shift between the day and night schedules every eight days or every 24 days.  

A typical four on, four off schedule would look like this:

WeekMonTuesWedThursFriSatSun
1Day/NightDay/NightDay/NightDay/NightOffOffOff
2OffDay/NightDay/NightDay/NightDay/NightOffOff
3OffOffDay/NightDay/NightDay/NightDay/NightOff
4OffOffOffDay/NightDay/NightDay/NightDay/Night

Employees benefit from this schedule as they receive plenty of time to rest and recuperate. Additionally, every eight weeks, they get three consecutive weekends off. 

On the other hand, the workweek shifts by a day as this schedule follows an 8-day week

So, it can be difficult for employees to make and stick to personal commitments. In an 8-week cycle, they have to work at least one day for five consecutive weekends. 

Not to mention, working the night shift for four days straight can be tiring for some. 

To counteract, employers can implement a three-on, three-off shift instead. 

3. The Pitman Schedule 

The Pitman Schedule is popular in law enforcement agencies, police departments, and emergency medical services (EMS) in the United States. 

There are two variations of the Pitman Schedule: fixed and rotating

A) Fixed Shift 

Typically used with four teams, here, employees follow a 14-day pattern of: 

  • Two working days.
  • Two days off.
  • Three working days. 
  • Two days off. 
  • Two working days. 
  • Three days off. 

Essentially, two teams would have the following schedule, with one on the morning shift while the other’s on the night shift. 

WeekMonTuesWedThursFriSatSun
1Day/NightDay/NightOffOffDay/NightDay/NightDay/Night
2OffOffDay/NightDay/NightOffOffOff

The other two teams will typically follow the schedule below, one on the day and one on the night shift. 

WeekMonTuesWedThursFriSatSun
1OffOffDay/NightDay/NightOffOffOff
2Day/NightDay/NightOffOffDay/NightOffOff

As a result, two teams are always working: one on the day shift and one on the night shift. 

B) Rotating Shift 

The rotating shift, also called the 2-2 3-2 2-3 schedule, uses four teams. 

Here, each team switches between working the day and night shift within a 28-day cycle.

Two teams would follow the plan below. This example is for the day shift. 

Simply replace “day” with “night” to create a night shift schedule.

WeekMonTuesWedThursFriSatSun
1DayDayOffOffDayDayDay
2OffOffDayDayOffOffOff
3NightNightOffOffNightNightNight
4OffOffNightNightOffOffOff

The other two teams would follow the schedule below. 

This example is for the night shift. Simply replace “night” with “day” to create a day shift schedule.

WeekMonTuesWedThursFriSatSun
1OffOffNightNightOffOffOff
2DayDayOffOffDayDayDay
3OffOffDayDayOffOffOff
4NightNightOffOffNightNightNight

Similar to the fixed schedule, two teams will always be available, providing 24/7 operations. 

Both variations have similar benefits and drawbacks. 

Employees don’t work more than three days in a row, and every other weekend is a 3-day weekend. Additionally, if an employee takes two days off on a 2-day workweek, they get the entire week off. 

That’s why the schedule is also known as EOWEO (Every Other Weekend Off). 

At the same time, employees could potentially work up to 62 hours/week, and each employee has to put in an average of 2 hours overtime/week.  

Wrapping Up 

Shift work is an excellent way to improve employee productivity and overall operational efficiency. 

However, you should be careful before implementing a long shift plan like the Panama schedule, as employees may find it difficult to switch to rotating, long shifts with ease.  

Additionally, you need to consider the local, state, and federal labor laws while making employee scheduling decisions.

 
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