Striking a balance between work and home life is never easy and children often suffer when that balance is uneven. Spending time with the family can be particularly difficult for those who work nonstandard shifts. A recent study examined how work schedules could affect children, finding that kids with parents who work evenings, nights, or with rotating time off may face more challenges than their peers. Parents who do work these schedules should aim to create as much structure as possible for their children.
Researchers at the University of Washington looked at families working a variety of schedules, finding that consistent hours — regardless of the time of day — can provide families with flexibility and help to improve child behavior, according to Science Daily. The study, published in the Journal of Family Issues, found that rotating shifts, defined as those that vary from day to day or week to week — cause the most problems for children.
Christine Leibbrand, a graduate student in the UW department of sociology and author of the study, said, according to the Economic Times, that in such cases, parents often struggle to make time for their 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," she said. "Parents are facing these decisions of balancing work and caring for their children."
This isn't the first study to suggest that irregular work schedules negatively impact children. In 2013, North Carolina State University researchers found that parent-child relationships are strained when parents work a job that doesn't keep regular hours, increasing the likelihood of child delinquent behavior, according to NC State News. But there are a few reasons why shift work can be hard on a family.
Along with struggling to make time with their kids, parents who work such shifts face other challenges as well. For one thing, Healthy Children reported that husbands and wives in these families spend little to no time together and children often pick up on the strain that the separation puts on their relationships:
If they are lucky they have a day or two during the week when they are both off, but their sleep schedules may be so different that they still spend very little time with each other. These people essentially pass messages to each other, and their parenting may be hampered by a minimum of teamwork.
Another struggle that comes with shift work is managing to get enough sleep. Dr. Ian Brown, a sleep specialist at Brisbane's St. Andrew's War Memorial Hospital, told Essential Baby that shift work combined with raising young children often leads parents to miss out on sleep all together. This really takes a toll on their bodies, he said:
If we’re working when our body tells us we should be sleeping, there are overwhelming problems. Shift work is like jet lag, but shift workers are coping with jet lag every time their shift changes.
To combat shift work sleep deprivation, Brown recommends that parents try to nap if and when they can:
A 15 to 20-minute nap throughout the day or before an evening shift will give you a degree of refreshment. Two separate three to four-hour sleeps are also an option if a solid seven or eight hours can’t be achieved.
Leibbrand's findings underscore the struggles that these families face. The results of her study vary by parent and child gender. For example, while mothers working night shifts has benefits for both boys and girls, when either mothers or fathers work split or rotating shifts, their children tend to have behavioral issues, according to Science Daily. Additionally, fathers' night shifts benefit their sons while rotating or split shifts are associated with behavioral issues in their daughters.
It's not all bad news, though, and parents aren't to blame. Parents working rotating shifts are doing what they need to do in order to provide basic necessities for their kids. Parents shouldn't feel guilty about what they need to do to put food on the table — especially in a country that is so behind on policies that support parents.
Additionally, in a nonstandard schedule, Leibbrand's findings suggest that a consistent schedule of the same days and times each week stave off negative consequences. Even if a traditional 9-5 job isn't an option, working the same odd hours every day can work well for a family. Specifically, it offers children the chance to have consistent child care, structured family time, and predictability in their parents' schedules. By attempting to regulate their schedules as much as possible, parents can make life a little easier on their children.