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Flexible Work Schedules? This Matters Most According to New Study

A researcher at the University of Washington on swing shifts, parenting and making it all go

Published on: July 16, 2018

Woman working late at a computer

Don’t work an old-school 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift? Fewer people do and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for families, according to new research from the University of Washington (UW).

Christine Leibbrand, a graduate student in the UW Department of Sociology, analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began following nearly 13,000 individuals in 1979, and its Child Supplement, which started following the children of those individuals in 1986. 

Leibbrand analyzed data from two-parent families where one parent worked a nonstandard or swing shift (evenings, nights or with rotating days off) alongside surveys completed by the study's participants. The surveys asked parents about their children’s behavior including questions about anxiety, aggression and getting along with peers. 

Leibbrand's findings? Consistent hours were associated with fewer behavioral problems.

Consistency is the key word. Researchers noted the most change in a child’s behavior when a parent’s schedule changed irregularly.

The full effects of rotating shift work depended on a child’s age and gender. The study’s findings, published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Issues, found:

  • A mother’s night shift tended to have benefits for boys and girls, especially when they’re young.
  • A mother’s rotating shift or a split shift — say, going to work for a few hours in the morning and again in the evening — was associated with greater problems among boys of all ages, and among older girls.
  • A father’s rotating or split shift was associated with more behavior problems among girls, particularly younger girls.
  • A father’s night shift tended to coincide with behavioral benefits among boys.

Most of the children aged out of the survey by the year 2006. “[Since then] technology has transformed how children play and learn, as well as how adults work, increasing the numbers who work remotely while rendering some jobs obsolete. All of those trends could affect child behavior and a family’s quality of life,” Leibbrand noted.

Her work was inspired by her two siblings with children. One is a nurse; the other a firefighter. She wanted to better understand how children’s behavior is affected when one parent in a dual-income family works a non-standard shift. 

While Leibbrand knows parents don’t always have control over their work schedules, she hopes her research will be used by employers and policymakers to better support families. 

“Solutions could involve allowing greater flexibility in the workplace or in providing paid family leave and access to quality child care,” she said.  

What a thought.

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