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.
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.
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.