Can low-wage shift work be family friendly?

ShareUnpredictability is a part of a shift worker’s daily life. Learning about your next shift only days in advance? Rotating shifts and unexpected last minute overtime? Or being sent home early without pay when work is slow? It’s all part of a day’s work. Or not, as Vickie Underwood learned.

Having worked at a printing production plant near Atlanta for 22 years without a single disciplinary actions on her record, Vickie (a single mom like many shift-workers) was fired for refusing a last minute mandatory overtime shift. Her reason for refusing? She had to go home that day to register her children for school.

Fortunately for Vickie, after a year without pay and with her union’s assistance, she was able to get her job back. But can workplaces avoid such issues in the first place?

As part of a series on flex-work policies, National Public Radio is examining the impact of unpredictable shifts and varying schedules on hourly and low-wage shift workers in How to Make Shift Work Family Friendly.

NPR interviews Michigan State University professor Ellen Kossek, who oversaw a National Institute of Health (NIH) study on the health impact of workplace flexibility on employees of Michigan grocery stores. Kossek found that:

“employees with the most accommodating manager reported better physical health…better sleep quality, higher job satisfaction, and less stress over work-life conflicts.”

Key factors include ensuring managers understand what their employees are up against and to serve as role models such as leaving early work early to attend a child’s sports or play.  Other actions that can help shift workers include: posting shifts further in advance, making it easier for employees to trade shift, and cross-training employees.

Lynn Casper, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, believes that there is a link between health risks such as cardiovascular diseases and obesity.  In a different NIH study examining the health impact of flexible work on employees, the study found that employees with the most rigid managers had higher risk for cardiovascular diseases and higher level of stress in children whose parent report work-conflict with their manager.

As Casper notes, “Our lives have sped up. We don’t have down time. This is a public health issue.”

You can read more about the NPR series on flex-work policies and listen to other episodes here.

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