How Unstable Work Schedules Affect Employees’ Physical and Mental Health

February 8, 2019

RSF grantees Daniel Schneider (University of California, Berkeley) and Kristen Harknett (University of California, San Francisco) have published a new paper in the American Sociological Review that investigates how unstable work schedules in the service sector affect the physical and mental health of workers.

While most prior studies of service-sector work have focused on earnings, Schneider and Harknett use an innovative approach to collect survey data from 28,000 retail and food service employees in order to study the effects of scheduling on these workers’ wellbeing. As they note, the rise of precarious work since the 1970s has been accompanied by an increase in employers’ use of “just-in-time” scheduling practices where employees receive their weekly work schedules only a few days in advance and frequently have shifts added, changed, or canceled at the last minute. Former visiting scholar Susan Lambert (University of Chicago) has estimated nearly 90% of hourly retail workers experience some degree of scheduling instability.

In their study, supported in part by RSF, Schneider and Harknett found that two-thirds of workers surveyed received less than two weeks’ advance notice of their schedules, and about one-third had received less than one week’s notice. Over a quarter had worked on call in the last month, and half had worked back-to-back closing and opening shifts:

The authors also found that exposure to scheduling instability was associated with increased psychological distress, poor sleep quality, and unhappiness. For instance, 64% of workers who experienced canceled shifts reported psychological distress, compared to less than half of those who hadn’t. Similarly, 82% of workers who had shifts canceled reported poor sleep quality, compared to 72% of those who hadn’t, and 43% of workers who had shifts canceled reported unhappiness, compared to 26% of those who hadn’t:

Schneider and Harknett found similar health outcomes for workers who had been exposed to other forms of scheduling instability, such as working on-call or working a “clopening” (or a back-to-back closing and opening) shift. “Our analysis of schedule instability and worker’s psychological distress, sleep quality, and happiness points to the human toll of unstable and unpredictable work scheduling in service sector jobs,” they write.

The authors further used their data to simulate how workers’ health outcomes might change in response to work scheduling laws or minimum wage laws. In their analyses, they found that while wage increases and more stable schedules were both associated with less distress, better sleep, and greater happiness, there was a stronger association in the case of scheduling. In other words, although scheduling instability has been understudied compared to wages, it may have a greater negative impact on workers for certain health outcomes.

As Schneider has noted, based on this research, fair scheduling or fair workweek laws—such as those implemented over the last few years in San Francisco, Seattle, Oregon, New York City, and Philadelphia—have the potential to significantly improve physical and mental health outcomes for workers in the service sector. Schneider and Harknett, Susan Lambert, and other researchers are currently part of a team that is working to evaluate the effects of these recent laws.

Read Schneider and Harknett’s article in full.

Read the research brief from the University of California, Berkeley.



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