Juggling Shiftwork and Parenting

Working shifts and raising a family can be a struggle, but there are ways it can be managed.

Our bodies naturally want to sleep at night and wake during the day. Shiftworkers (who often have to sleep during the day) regularly suffer sleep deprivation, as it’s more difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep during the day. This can become especially difficult for those who are also juggling parenthood.

The Impact of Shiftwork

There are many health implications for those working shifts, such as sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, stress, headaches, physical exhaustion and gastrointestinal disorders.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), in November 2009 there were 8.6 million employees aged 15 years and over in Australia. Of these, 1.4 million usually worked shifts, comprising 16 per cent of all employees.

Parents are invaluable in helping children understand and increase their language skills and vocabulary, gain motor skills and develop in other cognitive domains. They also help develop children’s emotional capacities – regulating emotions and temperament and encouraging positive behaviour.

For this reason, in a child’s early years the parental-employment situation may compromise a child’s development due to lack of time spent with their parents. This can have negative consequences on the quality of the home environment and parent-child relationship.

Increased hours of shiftwork are associated with negative work-family life balance, as well as increased levels of stress and anxiety.

Pre-school children with at least one parent working shiftwork are more likely to have behavioural problems, while older children are more likely to have lower levels of school engagement and attend fewer extracurricular activities. It has also been found that children of shiftworkers have shorter sleep durations.

Shiftwork and Family Life

The extent of the impact of shiftwork on ‘off-shift’ life depends not only on the individual’s ability to cope with working non-traditional hours, but also on the type or number of hours worked.

For instance, the term ‘shiftwork’ covers a broad range of working schedules, including weekend work, afternoon shifts, overnight shifts, rotating shifts, split shifts (for example, a person may work from 8am to 12pm, have a break and then work from 3pm to 7pm) or casual/variable hours.

Regardless of the type of non-traditional hours spent working, there are three key areas to consider when looking at the impact of shiftwork:

  1. Work-family balance
  2. Physical wellbeing
  3. Mental wellbeing

This is particularly important when looking at the extra responsibilities associated with being a parent. There has been an increase in non-standard work hours recently, which studies attribute to demands for greater shift flexibility from employers and employees.

In the USA, about one-third of mothers report that adopting a non-standard work schedule means their children can be cared for by a spouse, friend or family member during their work hours.

Similarly in Australia, working non-standard hours has become a strategy for many families to manage their childcare needs, enabling ‘split-shift’ parenting to cover childcare needs not met by formal care, which may not be available or may be too expensive.

If you have the option of choosing the length of your shifts (for example, fewer shifts for longer durations, or shorter shifts more frequently), research suggests there are very few differences when comparing people who worked a shorter night shift (about eight hours) or a longer shift (about 12 hours) on overall wellbeing.

On the other hand, choosing a permanent or rotating shiftwork roster (changing shift times) is more likely to affect daytime functioning differently. Choosing a permanent roster adds stability to your work schedule and is beneficial by ensuring predictability and reliability.

Where there is no option in shiftwork scheduling, and a parent must work a rotating roster, attaining a suitable work-life balance can seem almost impossible.

However, quality time that encompasses developmentally important activities such as reading to a child, helping them with their homework and enjoying leisure and social activities as a family, will help nurture the parent-child relationship.

Strategies to Manage Shiftwork

  • Try to limit shiftwork to fewer than 44 hours a week.
  • A permanent roster is preferable over a rotating one, as it has better implications for managing work-life balance.
  • It may be worth considering working fewer shifts for longer durations (12 hours maximum), rather than working shorter shifts more regularly.
  • Despite all best plans, the demands of parenting combined with shiftwork make a nap an effective way to increase your performance and alertness. A nap is most beneficial, and will not affect a person’s ‘long sleep’, if it is kept to less than 30 minutes, and is not used as a substitute for normal sleep patterns.

Rachael Spooner and Gabrielle Rigney are doctoral students at the University of South Australia Centre for Sleep Research.

Words by Gabrielle Rigney

Guest Contributer
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guest@childmags.com.au