How Parents’ Unpredictable Work Schedules Harm Kids

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On-call scheduling, a practice which has been employed by companies like Starbucks and Abercrombie & Fitch, in which employees get very little advance notice about which shifts they’ll be working, and in which shifts can be easily cancelled or curtailed, is terrible for employees: It prevents them from being able to schedule a normal life around their job, and has particularly negative effects among economically precarious employees, who experience more pressure with regard to issues like transportation and childcare.

As I noted a year ago, responding to the New York Times’ excellent article on the subject, when it comes to issues like work scheduling, there’s a great deal of unexplored overlap between economic concerns and psychological ones: Practices like on-call scheduling, that seem to make financial success to a company, can have negative consequences on the well-being of its employees — consequences that don’t get factored into companies’ decision-making equations. 

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Noam Scheiber highlights another set of invisible victims of these practices: the children of parents with unpredictable work schedules. He highlights one study in particular which makes this case:

In one of the most respected studies, published in 2005 in the journal Child Development, Prof. Wen-Jui Han of New York University looked at children during their first three years of life, controlling for such demographic variables as their mothers’ income, education, and race and ethnicity.

Professor Han, who was then at Columbia University, found that children of mothers who worked nonstandard schedules performed lower on problem-solving, verbal comprehension and spoken language tests than children of mothers who worked traditional schedules. Part of the explanation, she concluded, was increased stress on the part of the parents.

Parents try their best to attend to their children in a sensitive and warm manner, but the physical and emotional exhaustion from nonstandard schedules makes it difficult,” Professor Han said in an interview. “With young children, if they’re crying, asking for food, asking for something, it’s all about how you interact with them.”

Another key issue, she found, was access to quality child care. Children whose mothers worked nonstandard schedules during their first year of life were significantly less likely to be enrolled in professional day care centers throughout early childhood. This type of child care setting, she noted in the paper, tends to be associated with better cognitive development than informal arrangements like relying on extended family members, a frequent alternative.

There’s also plenty of adjacent literature on developmental psychology that suggests on-call scheduling can be bad for kids. Simply put, kids require a lot attention, and there is, to oversimplify slightly, a direct correlation between how much attention they get from parents and other caregivers and how healthy — psychologically and physically — they turn out. On-call scheduling simply makes it more difficult to provide that attention.

Luckily, as Scheiber points out there’s been some legislative and regulatory progress on this issue since the Times’ original exposé, and Starbucks and Abercrombie appear serious about reforming their scheduling practices. Hopefully that progress will continue, because it’s not just exhausted, stressed-out workers who stand to benefit.