More than 1 in 6 people regularly work shifts outside of the normal Monday to Friday work week[i]. In today’s episode we want to look at some of the unique challenges that shiftwork can bring to marriage. And not only the challenges but how you can work together as a couple to make the most of life even when it is hard to see each other due to one or both of you being involved in shift work.
About 17% of workers regularly work in shifts outside the regular work week[ii]. Lots of folks have learned to make this work and we know a number of friends and family members who have been long term shift workers and have had successful marriages over the long term. However, it definitely presents some challenges and can lead to increased conflict. Let’s begin by looking at some of the problem areas associated with shift work and marriage.
How Shift Work Affects Marriage
Shift work can create a unique and extreme form of work-family conflict: where the roles and responsibilities of your job and your marriage start to negatively impact each other.
Shift work can affect marriage in three main ways[iii]:
Competition: this is where the two roles of career and family life compete for your time and energy so that you have to sacrifice parts of one in order for the other to function well. In shift work this normally means the family life has to suffer so that you can continue to function at work. Shift work typically disrupts normal sleep patterns making it harder to spend time with your spouse and family. Poor sleep can also harm your mood, energy levels and physical health, which can reduce the quality of the time you do get to spend together. If you’ve been working all night you might now always be in the best mood to chat when you get home!
Spillover: this happens when low mood, fatigue and other negative effects spill over from work to home, or from home to work. In shift work this often happens when tiredness and low mood from the job are brought home, leading to negative interactions with your spouse at home. Negativity at home can then spill over into the work life, creating a cycle.
Compensation: this is where you invest more in one of your roles to compensate for the fact that the other role isn’t going well. For example, people whose marriages are not going well may invest more
Now, these impacts do not have to happen. They are not inevitable. But they are some of the common challenges that shift work presents to marriage. And any or all of them can happen at the same time.
Your Shift Pattern Matters
What is interesting to note is that the overall impact on marriage depends very much on what your shift pattern is. “Shift work” in the research can mean anything from occasionally working weekends to consistently working nights or anything in between.
Generally research finds that all forms of shift work can have a negative impact on areas of marriage such as overall happiness, positive interactions, levels of conflict and sexual satisfaction[v]. But different kinds of shift work were found to have different levels of impact. These are, from least impactful to most:
- Weekend work
- Fast rotating shifts (eg 3 days nights followed by 3 days daytime work)
- Slow rotating shifts (eg 1-2 weeks working nights followed by 1-2 weeks working days)
- Long-term night shifts
The faster rotating shifts make it easier for couples to get into a rhythm and still see each other fairly regularly on a week by week basis, whereas the longer rotating shifts and night shifts make regular time together much harder. Shorter shift patterns are also less disruptive to the body’s sleep rhythms[vi]
On that note, if you are a shift worker I hope you acquaint yourself with Shift Work Sleep Disorder — even if you just Google it to begin with you’ll find good resources to help accommodate the challenges to sleep that this kind of work brings.
Getting Into the Swing of Shift Work
Our bonus guide for this episode goes into the research to look at how you can best help your body get into the swing of shift work and adjust your sleep cycle in the most efficient manner possible. You can get access to this additional information by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People for just the price of a couple of coffees a month!
Shift Work and Family Life Stages
Before we look at how to protect your marriage when one or both of you are working shifts, let’s also just take a moment to talk about how shift work has varying impacts and different stages of life.
Research shows there are certain stages of life where shift work has different effects on marital quality. These are:
Later life: shiftwork can have a big impact on marital quality and stability for newlyweds. But the longer couples have been married the less impact it tends to have. If couples have been married a long time then they probably know how to support each other and face challenges together so can adjust to shiftwork fairly easily[vii].
Children: shiftwork can have a very negative impact on marital quality if you are raising young children. This is especially true if it is the wife who is working shifts, as she is normally the one who does the majority of childcare[viii]. Mother’s shift work can also have negative impacts on a child’s wellbeing and behavior.
So shift work when you have young (pre teen) children is likely to have a larger impact on your family. We aren’t saying this to shame anyone but the thing is that when you have these additional challenges, it just becomes even more important to be strategic about compensating for them and facing them as a couple.
Protecting Your Marriage From The Impact of Shift Work
Communication is the key!
Communication style fully mediates the link between marital satisfaction and work-family conflict caused by shiftwork[ix]. This means that if couples learn to communicate properly then shift work has NO negative effect on marriage. That’s great news!
The most important thing is speaking to each other in a way that is constructive rather than destructive. This involves proactive choices that are important in any marriage such as self disclosure, warmth, and positive conflict resolution. All the good ways of talking to each other than you’d want in any marriage. But for couples dealing with shift work, these additional factors were found to be helpful[x]:
- Frequency of problem-solving communication: couples need to find ways to talk about normal day to day issues regularly. Even if they aren’t able to have longer conversations
everydaydue to shifts, just checking in daily or even talking via phone/text is still important. So how can you both carve out some space for those daily conversations?
- Empathy and understanding: couples should try to show that they understand and empathize with the difficulties their spouse is experiencing as either the shift working spouse or the non-shift working spouse. Both have unique challenges: understanding
and showingcompassion will go a long way towards easing the additional challengesof shift work.
- Support: learn to support one another with these challenges. Help your spouse adjust to
shiftwork (or to you being a shift worker) and just be ready to do your best to make the situation work.
- Maintenance behaviors. These are the actions spouses take to maintain the strength of the relationship and invest in each other. These are important in any
marriage,but may look slightly differentin shift marriages. For examplespouses can leave notes or giftsaround the house if they don’t see each other often to give them in person. Or send loving texts during the day or make time for date nights onthe time they do have together etc. In other words, find adaptive and creativeways to do the things all couples need to do in order to create thriving, passionate marriages.
So while there are some real challenges, we hope that this has given you a lot of hope. Shift work is a challenge — but with the right spirit and the right tools you should do just fine.
[i] Irena Iskra-Golec et al., “Shift Schedule, Work-Family Relationships, Marital Communication, Job Satisfaction and Health among Transport Service Shift Workers,” International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health 30, no. 1 (February 21, 2017): 121–31, https://doi.org/10.13075/ijomeh.1896.00670.
[ii] Iskra-Golec et al.
[iii] Blanche Grosswald, “Shift Work and Negative Work-to-Family Spillover,” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 30, no. 4 (2003): 31–56.
[iv] Harriet B. Presser, “Nonstandard Work Schedules and Marital Instability,” Journal of Marriage and Family 62, no. 1 (2000): 93–110, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00093.x.
[v] Lynn White and Bruce Keith, “The Effect of Shift Work on the Quality and Stability of Marital Relations,” Journal of Marriage and Family 52, no. 2 (1990): 453–62, https://doi.org/10.2307/353039.
[vi] Iskra-Golec et al., “Shift Schedule, Work-Family Relationships, Marital Communication, Job Satisfaction and Health among Transport Service Shift Workers.”
[vii] Presser, “Nonstandard Work Schedules and Marital Instability.”
[viii] Rosalind Chait Barnett, Karen C. Gareis, and Robert T. Brennan, “Wives’ Shift Work Schedules and Husbands’ and Wives’ Well-Being in Dual-Earner Couples With Children: A Within-Couple Analysis,” Journal of Family Issues 29, no. 3 (March 1, 2008): 396–422, https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X07305346.
[ix] Sarah Carroll et al., “Couple Communication as a Mediator Between Work-Family Conflict and Marital Satisfaction,” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal 35, no. 3 (September 2013): 530–45, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-013-9237-7.
[x] Carroll et al.