For the millions of Americans who work “nonstandard” shifts – evenings, nights or with rotating days off – the schedule can be especially challenging with children at home.
But a new study from the University of Washington finds that consistent hours, at whatever time of day, can give families flexibility and in some cases, improve children’s behavior.
The study, first made available online in December 2017 before being published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Issues, focuses on two-parent families in which one parent works a nonstandard shift, hours that are common in health care, law enforcement and the service sector.
The study finds that the impacts of parent work schedules on children vary by age and gender, and often reflect which shift a parent works. Rotating shifts — a schedule that varies day by day or week by week — can be most problematic for children.
“Workers often struggle to carve out the work/life balance they want for themselves, and in dual-earner families, balancing partners’ schedules remains an issue for many families,” said Christine Leibbrand, a graduate student in the UW department of sociology and author of the study. “Parents are facing these decisions of balancing work and caring for their children.”
There are conflicting figures on the number of people who work nonstandard shifts. In 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted nearly 15 million such workers, up from 14.5 million in 2001, when one in seven people worked a nonstandard schedule. A 2014 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated as many as one in four Americans worked a night shift. Increasingly, other factors may influence who works when: rapidly changing technology affecting many industries, the increase in working remotely, and the growing gig economy.
Nonstandard schedules, especially for single-parent and lower-income families, are associated with behavior problems among children, according to past research.
To add to that research, Leibbrand examined data on two-parent households in which one parent worked a nonstandard shift. On this, she was inspired in part by her own family: a sibling who’s a nurse, another a firefighter, both with children.
Using information from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which started following a group of nearly 13,000 individuals in 1979, and its Child Supplement, which started following the children of those individuals in 1986, Leibbrand analyzed parents’ work schedules against their periodic reports of their children’s behavior. Child behavior (covering ages 5 to 15) was ascertained from a 28-question survey that covers issues such as anxiety, aggression and getting along with peers. Those results receive a Behavioral Problems Index score — the higher the score, the more problems a child is reported to have.
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