The Overlooked Consequences of Nonstandard Work Schedules

By Emma Wen

This summer, hundreds of college students descended into Washington D.C. for internships that ranged from managing hotel revenue at the Marriott headquarters in Bethesda to giving tours of the Capitol Building. Myself included, interns arrived at work between 8 or 9 am and left between 5 or 6 pm. While this seemingly traditional work schedule is common for DC interns, it is a far cry from the work schedules that many Americans face today. Even within my friend circles, my schedule was but one of a variety: one friend in Minnesota woke up at 4 am for her Target shift, while another in Ohio stayed at work as late as 2 am to handle an influx of card stock. These examples are not extreme — instead, they point to a growing prevalence of schedules outside of the fixed, daytime work schedule.

The increase of nonstandard work schedules is a growing concern because such schedules negatively impact the well-being of workers and their families. These impacts range from a mother employed in food service missing her child’s school activity because of an unexpected shift to a night shift nurse driving dangerously due to sleep deprivation. While nonstandard work schedules occur in both high-earning and low-earning professions — from ER surgeons to truck drivers — they are most common in retail, food service, and hospitality jobs. Most positions in these industries are low-wage, and consequently, low-income workers are the most vulnerable to the serious consequences that these schedules have on mental and physical health and family well-being.

As Christians called to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 4:33, ESV), we strive to bring justice into all areas of life. Within the interactions of family and work, two critically important human institutions, there is now a dangerous imbalance between them. Society and employers forget to consider employees as members of families and unthinkingly create trade-offs for many workers between their job and their family. Called to pursue flourishing through right relationships of family and work, we Christians have a responsibility to address these unfair trade-offs, especially those caused by unnecessary nonstandard work schedules.

What are Nonstandard and Unstable Work Schedules?

“Nonstandard work schedules” is a term typically used to refer to work schedules that fall outside of a fixed, daytime, Monday to Friday schedule. They include shift work, weekend work, rotating or split shifts, or irregular schedules, which can change from week to week or even day to day. Work schedules with unpredictability (short advance notice), instability (changes week to week), or rigidity (little to no employee input) can also be considered nonstandard. Schedules with one or more of those three characteristics will be called “unstable” in this article. The opposite of unstable schedules would be schedule control or predictive scheduling, in which workers have significant input into their start and end times, the number of hours they work, the length of their workweek, or even where they work.

Among the American workforce in 2011, the Bureau of Labor estimates that about 20 percent had nonstandard work schedules in evening, night, or rotating shifts. Surveys analyzed by the International Labor Organization show that between 13 to 19 percent of American workers have unstable schedules with split, irregular, or rotating shifts. As noted earlier, while forms of unstable scheduling vary by occupation, industries with overall high schedule instability include leisure and hospitality, transportation, retail, and agriculture. Businesses have many reasons for unstable schedules. Sometimes these schedules result from what society has deemed to be “the nature of the job” and are therefore unavoidable, like a doctor who must be on-call for the emergency room or a firefighter who must be on-call for unexpected fires.

Who is Impacted?

The prevalence of unstable schedules is particularly widespread in the young workforce. In an analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, a high percentage of workers aged 26 to 32, including young parents, regularly received less than a week’s notice of their schedules, experienced weekly fluctuations in their work schedules, and had no input in their starting and quitting times. This pattern is not entirely surprising, however, since young workers typically lack seniority and leverage early in their careers to control their schedules. Even so, these unstable schedules present considerable difficulties for those who desire to start and support families.

In another study of scheduling practices within the low-skilled industries of hospitality, transportation, retail, and financial services, last-minute schedule notices and a lack of guaranteed minimum hours for hourly workers were common practices across the board. Low-wage, low-income mothers with young children are especially vulnerable to these scheduling practices and are overrepresented in service sector jobs that employ nonstandard work schedules. In some estimates, over 50 percent of mothers who leave welfare and are employed in entry-level or sales positions work on weekends, while 25 to 50 percent work night or early morning shifts. For these mothers and other low-skill, low-income workers, nonstandard work schedules add stress to their precarious financial state and family well-being.

Research shows a number of negative consequences that nonstandard work schedules impose on workers and their families. This makes sense — how can workers plan for family dinners, doctor appointments, or arrange child care when their schedules vary wildly from week to week or they are unable to move their starting or ending times? While many workers successfully accomplish familial responsibilities under such circumstances, they often do so with significant obstacles, which contribute to the detriment of their and their families’ well-being.

Nonstandard work schedules negatively impact the well-being of workers and their families

In her book  Fighting for Time, Harriet Presser, the late sociology professor at the University of Maryland, found that dual-earner couples in which one spouse works a nonstandard schedule reports higher marital dissatisfaction compared to couples in which both work standard, day-time schedules. Another study found that weekend workers report higher work and spousal stressors than weekday workers, while night shift workers have higher spillover of negative experiences and emotions from work into their family than other shift workers. For some dual-earner couples, economic imperatives lead to work schedules that reduce the amount of time spouses can spend with each other or their children. Unfortunately, this can potentially lead to divorce or dangerous behaviors by the children. This is a particular concern of many immigrant and refugee families, as explained in a new report by the Center for Public Justice, Time to Flourish. The report documents the story of Adeng Leek, a Sudanese refugee in Michigan, who struggles to see her husband or help her children with their homework because of the alternating day and night shifts she and her husband work.   

Additional studies have examined the connection between nonstandard schedule working parents and the outcomes for their children. These outcomes include higher rates of behavioral problems, lower cognitive abilities for preschoolers, and higher parenting stress for the parents.

Unpredictable schedules have physical impacts on workers too. In one report, 20 percent of workers with short notice of schedule cited poor or fair health, compared to 12-13 percent of workers with more advance notice. The same report drew on previous studies to conclude that workers with short notice have greater mental and physical health problems compared to those with longer notice, while workers with schedule control have healthier lifestyles and better physical health.

How Should Government Respond?

The troubling impacts of nonstandard and unstable schedules on workers and their families’ well-being have not gone unnoticed in the public and policies against unstable scheduling have been enacted at both the state and local level. With the service sector, which is fast becoming the industry with the greatest employment opportunities, political leaders are starting to listen to the concerns of researchers and activists about the unstable schedules that accompany service jobs. In 2015, the New York state attorney general warned several large retailers on the potential illegality of on-call scheduling, in which employees learn what hours they must work a few hours before coming into work. The retailers who were singled out, including Target and Gap, responded by either ending that practice or saying they had not used it in the first place.

The city of San Francisco passed the Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2014, which penalizes business that do not provide enough notice to employees and compensates hourly workers for unexpected schedule changes. In Oregon and New York City; hospitality, retail, and food service employers must now provide employees with between a week to two weeks’ schedule notice.  With the number of state and local governments who are bringing the solution of predictive scheduling to their legislative agenda rising, policymakers should consider the following potential policy solutions when confronting the issue of nonstandard and unpredictable work schedules.

First, legislators should work with businesses to obtain both compliance with new laws and knowledge of scheduling practices that effectively provide schedule control to workers. Second, government offices themselves could institute policies and cultures that encourage workers to go home on time or work flexibly when needed. Third, laws that deal with nonstandard work schedules should take into account the diverse needs that low-wage workers face compared to high-wage workers. Predictive scheduling can provide much needed stability for low-wage workers, while flexible work arrangements may be the best option for high-wage workers.

Public policy will not address every worker’s schedule troubles, but lawmakers can return power to employees by implementing  these suggestions when crafting legislation. Combining public and private efforts will lead to the protection of workers from the destructive consequences that nonstandard work schedules impose on families and workers.

How Should Businesses Respond?

While public policies help draw attention to the experience of nonstandard schedule workers, the voluntary actions of businesses significantly bolster public awareness. As an example, several predictive scheduling practices were tested out in a study on stable scheduling in Gap stores nationwide. These practices, which included 2-week advance schedule notice, tech-enabled shift swapping between co-workers, and a minimum of guaranteed hours, were found to increase median sales and productivity, while introducing modest schedule stability for workers. Although this study was the first of its kind and thus needs improvement, its results point to the profitability of stable scheduling and discourage traditional business notions that support unstable scheduling.

When businesses respect their workers, both on and off the job, through stable scheduling or other forms of schedule control, they receive benefits back in return. In a study by the Families and Work Institute, workplaces that gave their employees greater flexibility and autonomy in their jobs (i.e. in work schedules, location, and managerial decisions) had higher worker satisfaction, productivity, and retention than workplaces that did not offer those factors. In other words, when businesses recognized and supported their workers’ work, family, and personal lives through institutional and social workplace practices, employees responded with greater loyalty and engagement. Additionally, both high- and low-wage workers had increased levels of productivity and retention in supportive workplaces. Therefore, such workplaces should be made available to all workers--whether white-collar or blue-collar, skilled or unskilled, and entry-level or managerial.  

One potential solution to nonstandard work schedules for businesses is for employers to give employees more schedule control where possible. One way to do so is through flexible work arrangements (FWAs). Already well-known in white-collar workplaces, FWAs give employees control over their starting and ending times, the ability to change schedules week to week, and sometimes, the location of their work, which allows them to balance other responsibilities, including family. Many white-collar workers benefit from such arrangements, but the same cannot be said for low-wage, blue-collar workers, who are more likely to work in nonstandard, unstable schedules and have less access to FWAs.

However, simply expanding access to FWAs or instituting a uniform FWA policy would not necessarily help businesses with large amounts of blue-collar, low-wage workers. Blue-collar workers in low-wage jobs usually have schedule instability, which means that their scheduling needs require more stability than flexibility, like a fixed number of hours to work or the end of the last-minute schedule adjustments. For example, in one study of low-wage working mothers’ school engagement, the authors found that these mothers had different challenges that required different solutions.  Mothers working as customer service representatives or administrative assistants had the ability to attend their children’s school activities, but had to do so through vacation or personal days, as they did not have the option of schedule flexibility to alter their start and end times. Chain restaurant servers and home care aides had so much schedule unpredictability from week to week that they could not even predict when they could participate in their children’s school engagements.

Effective solutions for these mothers and other low-wage workers in similar positions could include changing formal time off policies into incremental, 1-hour leaves, or instituting two-week schedule advance notice with the ability to alter start and end times by 15 minutes. Given the variability of circumstances that these workers face, there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, creativity will be required as certain industries like retail will need different work schedule control solutions compared to transportation or healthcare industries.

Above all, businesses should try to respect the lives of its workers outside of work and delegate some form of schedule creation to them.  

How Do Christians Respond?

From the beginning of creation, God created work for humanity as part of His plan for our flourishing (Gen. 1:28). He gives us the calling and capability to work while also giving us responsibility in other areas, like in political structures, culture making, and most centrally, families. As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Family articulates, “Family is the most basic institution”. Because of the value of family as humanity’s most basic institution and a key place of support, love, and development in all persons’ lives, family and work must be honored to properly maintain human flourishing. This means that all aspects of work, ranging from work scheduling to paid family leave, must be balanced with familial responsibilities.

Unfortunately, this balance is not easily attained for low-income workers, who are often in low-wage, low-quality jobs with high amounts of schedule instability and nonstandard hours. The impacts of these jobs have greater negative consequences for low-income workers compared to high-income workers in similar unstable job schedules, since the latter usually has more resources and job leverage to mitigate those negative effects. The inequality low-income workers face in juggling their work and familial demands can ultimately twist the complementary relationship between the fundamental institutions of work and family into one full of tension, stress, and trade-offs.

Christians are called to bring God’s kingdom and His values into this world, and the challenges that many families, particularly low-income families, face as a result nonstandard schedules is something that we should pay attention to. We should seek to address this issue by providing resources to low-wage workers, changing business practices, and advocating for better public policies on the workers’ behalf. By doing so, we work towards realizing the right relationship between work and family that will ultimately lead us closer to Christ’s vision for human flourishing.  

Emma Wen is a senior at Wheaton College in Illinois studying political science and economics. This summer she interned under the Families Valued initiative at the Center for Public Justice.