Ever more people are stuck with shift work in a globalised economy that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We now live in a world where – thanks to information and communication technologies – we are able to produce and distribute goods, services and capital around the globe virtually nonstop.
To keep merchandise and consumers moving across time zones and national borders, employers must increasingly staff workplaces around the clock. And after worldwide labour deregulation during the past decades’ neoliberal reforms, they are now free to hire workers on a casual or on-call basis to reduce labour costs.
This relentless schedule has led prominent sociologist Harriert Presser to call ours the “24/7 economy” – a market that works relentlessly, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Working nonstandard schedules
Shift work is on the rise in the 24/7 economy. The definition of this phenomenon, which is also known as “nonstandard work schedules”, varies somewhat among scholars and across countries. But it essentially refers to schedules in which the majority of an employee’s work hours fall outside a typical daytime Monday-to-Friday schedule.
This includes evenings, nights, rotating shifts (alternating between day, evening, or night shifts but on a fixed schedule), split shifts, irregular hours and regular weekend work.
In the US, some groups are more likely to work nonstandard hours than others. Young people, men, those with less education and low-skilled workers have higher incidence of nonstandard hours. As do married couples with young children and single mothers.
Broadly speaking, jobs in the private sector, the service industry and in sales are more likely than other occupations to require nonstandard hours. These include janitors, waitresses, retail workers, nurses and personal-services providers, among other frequent shift workers.
Not coincidentally, these are among the fastest-growing sectors in the US and globally.
Health, well being and relationships
We wanted to know the consequences of the 24/7 economy on workers, family life and children, so we conducted a comprehensive review of the evidence from 23 quantitative empirical studies spanning three decades (1980-2012) and five countries: the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and Croatia.
Our research mainly focused on studies that examined the impact of 24/7 economy on children’s development – their social and emotional well-being, physical health, cognitive ability and academic outcomes – but reviewed the evidence on how families, parents and couples are affected as well.
When it comes to adults, the evidence that working nonstandard schedules are associated with poor physical and mental health is clear. Physical health problems include increased fatigue, insomnia, stomach and digestive issues, higher cardiovascular risks, being overweight. And the group is also tends to make unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.
Chronic fatigue, sleep deprivation and the resulting stress are all major obstacles to productivity. There are also psychological disturbances associated with sleep deprivation, including adverse effects on memory and reaction time, as well as chronic anxiety and depression.
Such stressors are correlated with a greater risk of workplace accidents among employees on nonstandard schedules.
There is also evidence that shift work can negatively impact the relationship between parents and couples, and that working evenings or nights is associated with greater depressive symptoms among mothers and fathers.
Such schedules do have one notable benefit, though: greater paternal involvement in child rearing. Regardless of whether it is the mother or the father who does shift work, in such families fathers spend more time with children than in those where both parents work standard day schedules.
Whether greater paternal involvement in child rearing might counterbalance some of the negative effects that nonstandard work schedules have on family life is a question that merits further study.
Impact on children
What’s clear is that the negative impact of the 24/7 economy clearly trickles down to kids.
Research shows consistent evidence that nonstandard parental work schedules are linked to adverse developmental outcomes, with children more likely to exhibit social and emotional problems or have lower maths and language skills.
These children are also more likely to be overweight or obese, engage in risk-taking behaviors (smoking, drinking, using drugs, delinquency and risky sexual activity) and to be at higher risk for depression compared to those whose parents work standard day schedules.
This impact has been observed throughout child developmental stages, from infancy to adolescence, and across countries. Our review revealed several pathways that can lead parental nonstandard schedules to correlate with poor childhood outcomes.
When parents show signs of depression, are harsh and insensitive with their children or create a generally unsupportive home environment, for example, those are vectors. So, too, are reduced child-parent interaction and intimacy and a lack of quality time spent doing developmentally important activities such as homework, parent-teacher meetings, sports and music lessons.
Our research also reveals that the 24/7 economy does not uniformly impact families and children. While shift work does have a negative effect on children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, disadvantaged families are hit hardest – that’s kids of low-income or single-parent families – along with families in which one or both parents work full-time on a nonstandard basis.
While the negative impact of the 24/7 economy on families and children has been reported across different developed countries, it is pronounced in some places and muted in others.
Consequences seem most pronounced in the US. Generally speaking, American workers do not benefit from many family-friendly workplace policies, such as flexible arrangements and sick or leave days. This is particularly true in low-wage and low-level jobs, and it impacts most directly those who work outside normal business hours.
In Australia, on the contrary, the adverse effect of shift work on adolescent children’s mental health was limited to those who come from single-parent households.
While in the Netherlands, working nonstandard schedules does not seem to have any detrimental impact on family well-being. One study comparing the UK, the Netherlands and Finland found that nonstandard parental work schedules are associated with less sociable behaviour among children in the UK but not elsewhere.
A plausible explanation for this difference is that in Finland the government provides early childhood education during nonstandard work hours, while the Netherlands offers flexible and reduced work hours. Such policies enable parents to organise child care during work hours, whereas in the UK – which is, like the US, a typical neoliberal state – no such provisions exist.
Understanding country-based differences in how the 24/7 economy impacts families and children is critical. So we are currently developing a larger international comparative project involving scholars from eight countries across three continents to elucidate national variations.
The past four decades have witnessed the rise and triumph of neo-liberalism worldwide. This has gone hand-in-hand with the deregulation of labour and financial markets, privatisation and cutbacks on social spending.
The process culminated in the global financial crisis of 2008 and persistently rising social inequality. Both have spurred a larger debate on the benefits and disadvantages of neo-liberal globalisation.
Even so, the 24/7 economy is likely to continue expanding, particularly since digitalisation worldwide has rendered it increasingly feasible to work outside the office and beyond normal business hours.
It is critical for governments to make policies that support parents, enabling them to balance work and family so that children may grow and flourish. Families are the social and economic fabric of society, and the future prosperity of the world depends on the healthy development of the next generation.
Jianghong Li is a senior research fellow at WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Wen-Jui Han is director of NYU-ECNU Institute for Social Development and Affiliate Professor, NYU Shanghai.