Tag Archives: Children

Unsocial working hours: are these compatible for parents and families?

A recently-launched Parliamentary inquiry is asking if policy needs to be changed to deal with the personal impact of night time or shift work. So how do unsocial working hours affect parents? Afshin Zilanawala from the University of Southampton and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at University College London discuss research which finds shift work, that is working non standard schedules (nights, evenings, weekends), can impact negatively on fathers’ mental health – though it also enables them to spend more time parenting.

Five years ago, the Taylor Review of Working Practices named work-life balance as one of the key foundations of quality work. It also highlighted the benefits of flexible working and said this enabled people to agree working patterns to fit in with family life and other caring commitments.

Now the Parliamentary  Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has launched an inquiry into the UK’s labour market – and five years on from the review, it will ask what the Government should be doing to address issues raised in its report: “Are there particular types of work, for example night-time or shift work, which warrant further consideration in respect of the impact of that work on workers?” 

We think the research we’ve undertaken as part of a wide-ranging project looking at the health implications of shift work for parents and children can help answer this. So why should we care about unsocial working hours?

In the last half century, global economies have faced remarkable transformations to their labor markets, such as demand for services during non daytime hours and an increase in the service sector. These changes mean more parents are working a nonstandard schedule (i.e., outside 8 a.m.-6 p.m. hours) and such work schedules could have important implications for parents and their children and their family life. 

Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which is following nearly 19,000 children born in the UK in the early 2000s, we looked at the issue from two angles: first, how do unsocial hours affect parents’ mental health and their relationships with their partners/spouses? And second, do fathers parent their children differently if they work evenings, nights or weekends? 

First, we wanted to get a better handle on whether parents’ mental health and relationship happiness are somehow linked with their experiences of unsocial working hours. Our aim here was to bring fresh understanding to the role of the 24/7 economy in the lives of working families.

We were able to access data gathered over a number of years from MCS participants on the relationship happiness of around 11,500 mothers and fathers. There was also information on the mental health of 12,600 mothers and 11,600 fathers.

Self-assessed wellbeing

Mothers and fathers were asked to self-assess their wellbeing using a set of nine questions covering emotional disturbance and associated physical symptoms. Couples reported on their relationship happiness using a score from 0 – very unhappy – to 6 – very happy.

Parents who reported being in paid work were asked if they regularly worked evenings, nights and/or weekends—collectively termed ‘nonstandard work schedules.’ Four out of 10 working mothers reported working non-standard hours, along with 57 per cent of working fathers.

We could see that fathers who did this type of work tended to have higher family income than women who did so. Thirty-five per cent of fathers worked more than 45 hours per week, compared with just four per cent of mothers

There was no significant effect on the mental health of mothers who worked unsocial hours although they had lower relationship happiness scores if they worked standard hours and their partners worked non-standard ones.

We did find fathers who moved into evening or weekend work had worse mental health, though fathers’ non-standard work schedules were not significantly associated with relationship happiness.

Integrating work and family demands

Thus, one of our key findings is the absence of any overwhelmingly negative association between non-standard work schedules and mothers’ mental health. Maybe working non-standard work schedules enables families to organise their lives in a way that integrates work with family demands, as the Taylor Review suggested. So, mothers may be using such work schedules as a deliberate strategy to balance work and family needs – while other studies have suggested otherwise, they focused on the first two years of life while we were able to look across the first decade of a child’s life.

Our second key finding is that non-standard work is associated with worse mental health for fathers. This was particularly the case for those who worked evenings and weekends. 

Why might results differ between mothers and fathers? Some research has suggested fathers are increasingly seen both as caregivers and as income providers. For fathers working non-standard hours this may be even more the case, perhaps placing them under new forms of strain. 

The role of fathers

Our second study (see below) looked in more detail at the dual roles of fathers: how do their work schedules and those of their partners interact with parenting in infancy and middle childhood? We were able to look at the time spent on basic care when children were nine months old and when they were seven years, and we were also able to look at time spent on physical play or recreation with seven-year-olds.

Fathers of nine-month-old babies were asked how often they looked after them alone, changed nappies, administered feeds or got up in the night. Fathers of seven-year-olds were asked if they helped their child get ready for bed or looked after them alone. They were also asked how often they read with or to their child, told stories, did musical activities, drew, played physically active games, took the child to the park or playground or played with toys or games indoors.

Fathers tended to do more care with seven-year-olds than they did with younger children. Those who worked evenings did less basic care than those working standard hours in infancy and in middle childhood.

Those who worked nights did more basic care both when children were infants and aged seven, while working weekends was linked to lower levels both of basic care and of play.

Policy implications

Our findings have potential implications both for policy and for practice in workplaces: pay premiums for working outside of standard hours, incentives for child-care facilities to remain open in the evenings and weekends, and predictable work schedules which enable families to maintain routines could all help.

In supportive workplaces fathers are able to make more use of paternity and parental leave. And the pandemic has shown us how many jobs can be worked flexibly. To ensure flexible working is inclusive, employers can advertise vacancies as flexible and reduce the qualifying period – currently 26 weeks in new employment – before requesting flexible work schedules. They might also wish to work to reduce stigma around flexible working for men, and to ensure policies are geared as much towards fathers as mothers. Lastly, interventions could help parents manage the stresses and challenges of non-standard working.

Our results call for further understanding of the mechanisms that enable or constrain parenting activities when parents work non-standard hours and how this varies between countries.

Making It Work: Fathers’ Nonstandard Work Schedules and Parenting Activities is research by Afshin Zilanawala and Anne McMunn and is published in the Journal of Marriage and Family 

Nonstandard work schedules in the UK: What are the implications for parental mental health and relationship happiness? is research by Afshin Zilanawala and Anne McMunn and is published in Community, Work and Family.

Want to be fit at forty? Don’t have a baby early!

Having a family early may not be good for your health later on. That was the conclusion of a team of researchers at the ESRC International centre for Lifecourse Studies when they looked at the interplay between the work and family lives of men and women, whose lives have been tracked over time in the 1958 Birth Cohort Study. But was it the same story for people born earlier and has it been the same for people who were born later? Dr Rebecca Lacey, who led the research, has been looking at the lives of thousands of adults in three Birth Cohort Studies to see whether the way their work and family lives intertwine impacts on the likelihood of them becoming overweight or obese later on.

In a recent blog for WorkLife, my colleague Anne McMunn outlined some of our research showing that, for both men and women, having children early, especially as a teenager, was closely linked with poorer health once they got into their forties.

Not only did the people we looked at for that piece of research have bigger waists, but they also had a great deal more fat circulating in their blood and less ‘good’ cholesterol, both of which are linked with a heightened risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Those findings stayed strong, even for young parents who had a job and were married, a clear indication that having children early on, with all the associated stresses and strains, seems to take a heavy toll on health over the life course.

For that piece of research, we looked only at people who had taken part in the National Child Development Study, also known as the 1958 Birth Cohort. For this research we looked, in addition at thousands more people, born in 1946 (National Survey of Health and Development) and another group born in 1970 (the British Cohort Study) whose lives had been tracked since birth.

Across cohorts

The reason for looking across cohorts was to see whether changes across generations in how we combine work and family (having children later, more cohabitation and less marriage, more women working etc.) have contributed in some way towards poorer health for some.

As with the earlier research, we made use of 12 specially created lifecourse types covering information on employment, partnerships and parenthood, such as ‘Work, Later family’ ‘Later family, Work break’, ‘Teen parent’.

Each individual in each birth cohort was ascribed a lifecourse type and this was then linked to their Body Mass Index (BMI) and how that changed over time. We went on to see how those figures differed between lifecourse types within and across the three cohorts. We used the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of overweight (BMI greater than or equal to 25) and obesity (BMI greater than or equal to 30).

In addition, we took a host of other factors including our participants’ socio-economic background, prior health and educational attainment into consideration.

We anticipated that, as our earlier research had shown, that people who worked less and had children earlier would show steeper increases in BMI and that across the three cohorts, those increases would become more pronounced.

Changing attitudes and behaviours

The distribution of lifecourse types across the three cohorts reflected, as we thought it would, changing attitudes and behaviours across generations, with increasingly more women in employment and early parenthood becoming less and less common.

In the 1946 cohort, the average BMI of a very small group of men who were ‘Teen parents’ increased from 20.3 to 26.76 between age 16-42, significantly more than any other work-family combination. The same was true for male teen parents in the 1958 cohort and also for those who worked and had a family early. In the 1970 cohort, men who had no children or had children later had BMI that increased significantly less than those who became parents earlier. The only exception to this was a group of men with no family and unstable work.

Another notable finding across all three cohorts was that average BMIs for men at age 42 in all of the work-family groups were higher than the WHO threshold for overweight. The only exception was men who had children later or no children at all.

For women in the 1946 study, there was no real difference between the groups when we looked at how their BMI increased between the ages of 16 and 42. The average BMI of the 1958 cohort women who had children early increased significantly more than that of women who had them later. Women in the 1970 cohort who did not work and had children early had the biggest BMI rise (6.69) with teen parents (6.31) close behind. The average BMI of the 42 year-old women in these two groups was on the WHO obesity threshold (30), with the average BMI for the remaining work-family groups all falling under the WHO definition of overweight (25 and above).

Other interesting things to emerge included:

  • BMI increased more for male teen parents than female in the 1970 cohort
  • Marriage seems to have particular health benefits for men
  • Divorce has greater negative health effects for men than women

Negative impact

This research reinforces what we found earlier, which is that for both men and women having children early (especially in your teens) no matter what your background, is likely to have a negative impact on your health in mid life, especially if you don’t have a job or if your work is irregular or unstable. Looking across three cohorts, we can also see that those differences have become more pronounced.

How to explain and better understand how all this plays out in the day to day lives of younger parents is a challenge. Having children early may disrupt someone’s education or career. Younger parents may also be more likely to smoke and drink and exercise less than their older counterparts, unhealthy behaviours which can become established early and set in across adulthood.

Whatever the context and the reasons, there are some important messages here for young people, prospective parents, health and education professionals as well as for Government; not least that decisions about how to combine work and family life, especially when to become a parent, may have long lasting ramifications for your health.

This research adds to a growing body of evidence which makes it clear that, as far as obesity is concerned, early intervention is key and that we need to consider the complex way in which our biological and social lives intertwine over time.

Further information

Work-family life courses and BMI trajectories in three British birth cohorts is research by Rebecca Lacey, Amanda Sacker, Steven Bell, Meena Kumari, Diana Worts, Peggy McDonough, Diana Kuh, and Anne McMunn. It is published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Photo credit: Baby Fingers, Thomas