Last-Minute Work Scheduling Is a Real Health Risk, Research Shows

Volatile hours decrease wellbeing and economic stability, new research shows
Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Want to increase your happiness? Look no further than your work schedule. Unstable working hours can harm employees' financial security and amplify their stress, according to research from the Washington-based Center for Equitable Growth.

While it's well-documented that irregular shift scheduling has become prevalent in the U.S., sociologists Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett set out to find out how that affects workers' wellbeing. To do that, the pair surveyed 6,476 hourly non-managerial service sector workers employed across eight large retail firms or fast food restaurants. 

Nearly half of the respondents lived off of varying weekly incomes, according to the survey. About 53 percent of workers who received their schedules less than one week in advance reported high income volatility — defined as struggling to pay bills and earning different amounts week-to-week — compared to only 44 percent of workers who received their schedules with more than two weeks' notice. Regarding health, about half of workers with unpredictable schedules reported "serious psychological distress" compared to only 37 percent of workers with more stable scheduling.

Many service-sector employers try to align staffing with peak shopping hours. Under this system, workers receive their weekly work schedules as little as a few days in advance, their hours change substantially from week-to-week, and shifts may be changed, cancelled, or added at the last minute. Research shows that almost 90 percent of hourly retail workers experience such instability.

The findings also corroborate other studies showing that unstable schedules correlate with work-family conflict and stress. 

Going forward, things could improve for workers facing hour volatility. For one thing, the labor market is tightening, so companies may be forced to offer better hours and wages as they try to retain workers. Policy makers have also been actively pursuing changes to labor regulations.

San Francisco has recently implemented legislation that requires chain stores to provide two weeks of advance notice of work schedules, and other large cities including Seattle, Washington D.C., and San Jose are considering similar rules. Some large retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are independently making or considering changes to company policies.