Shift Work and Divorce – Does the Work Schedule Really Make a Difference?

Divorce.  It’s not a fun topic for anyone.

By now most of us have read that we’re better off if we’re married.  According to the Center for Disease Control, married people tend to have lower mortality rates, exhibit less risky behavior, are more likely to monitor their health, comply with necessary medical routines, have sex more often and experience more satisfaction with their sexual lives, save more and earn more.  On a national level, the Census Bureau reports that a shrinking share of Americans are married, only 52% of males and 48% of females were married in 2008. The proportion of Americans who are currently married has been decreasing for decades and is lower than it has been in at least half a century.  The median duration of a marriage in 2008 was 18 years. In 2008, 9% of men were divorced and 12% of women were.

So why don’t we stick with our marriages?  And, is it true that maintaining a marriage is more difficult for shift workers?

Here are some of the common reasons why marriages end:

  • The match wasn’t a good one in the first place.
  • There’s a loss of intimacy and connection between the couple.
  • One partner has an affair or falls in love with another person, about 30% of marriages end because an affair is discovered.
  • Verbal, physical or sexual abuse is sometimes tolerated for a long time, until the abused person says enough and ends the relationship.
  • One person matures and their transformation causes them to grow out of the marriage: this may result from simple aging or events like new relationships, new jobs, or additional education.
  • Changes in priorities like having kids, changing jobs, or caring for parents cause stress.
  • One partner develops a problem or a series of issues like substance abuse, mental health challenges, or performs illegal acts.

Studies have found that people working shift work tend to experience greater marital instability.  One study found that when one member of a couple (in an intact marriage over a three-year period) entered into a position with a nonstandard work schedule, marital disagreements significantly increased.  And, quitting nonstandard work schedules resulted in significantly improved marital interaction.  Couples working at nonstandard schedules in 1980 were significantly more likely to be divorced by 1983.  One study found that shift work was associated with difficulties in developing and maintaining family ties. ÂShift working families may spend less time together, making it more difficult to maintain family rituals and social activities that unite the family.  Many who work shift work report that they are less satisfied with family life.

That’s the bad news.  Now for the details and some good news…

There’s evidence that shift work does benefit some workers.  The benefits of shift work appear to be the greatest for those who choose a shift work schedule vs. for those who have to work it because the job requires it.  Studies have found that worker flexibility offsets many of the negative effects of shift work on family life.  One major study found that shift work did not have a negative impact on family life at all. This study found that control of the worker’s schedule was a more important influence on a variety of family and health outcomes, as opposed to the actual schedule worked.

Perhaps this is the same phenomenon as to why these positions are often reported as the top five most stressful jobs:

1) Clerical
2) Production
3) Operations
4) Human Resources
5) Finance

It’s all about control.  People want to feel they have some say over their time and work.  Each of these five positions are primarily reactionary in nature causing workers to have less control over how they spend their time, less awareness of what the time commitment will be, and less to say about how the work is going to be completed.

In 2007, researchers from the Department of Sociology, Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, conducted a study of the effects of shift work on individuals.* Â Data was used from the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce conducted by the Families and Work Institute.   Study participants were nationally representative; the study population consisted of 1650 workers, of which 238 (14.4 percent) were shift workers.

Respondents were asked the following five questions:

1. In the past three months, how often have you: not had enough time for your family or other important people in your life because of your job; not had the energy to do things with your family or other important people in your life because of your job; not been able to get everything done at home each day because of your job; and, not been in as good a mood as you would like to be at home because of your job?  Question measured work to family conflict.


2. In the past three months, how often has your family or personal life kept you from: getting work done on time at your job; taking on extra work at your job; doing as good a job at work as you could; drained you of the energy you needed to do your job; kept you from concentrating on your job?  Question measured family to work conflict.


3.  How often in the past three months have you: had more energy to do things with your family because of your job; and been in a better mood at home because of your job?  Question measured how much work facilitated family interaction.


4.  How often have you had more energy to do your job because of your family or personal life?  Question measured how much the home facilitated work.

5.  In the last month, how often have you had minor health problems; how often have you had sleep problems that affect your work performance; how often have you felt nervous/stressed out; have you been unable to control important things in your life; have you felt that you could not overcome difficulties; have you felt depressed or hopeless; have you felt little interest or pleasure?  Question assessed the mental health of the respondent.


Wilkes Study Findings:


The only dimension of work-family fit that was significantly different based on work schedule (shift working or daytime) was work-to-home conflict.  Shift workers experienced more conflict on average than those who work standard daytime schedules.  Even when taking into account control of work schedule, shift work is still significantly associated with greater work-to-home conflict.

Neither the work schedule nor control of the work schedule is significantly related to home-to-work conflict. Workers who experienced greater home-to-work conflict were younger, white, earned more money, had more education, and worked longer hours.

The study results indicated that the work schedule had no direct effect on workers’ mental health.  However, those with more control over the work schedule had better mental health.  It didn’t appear to the researchers that shift work had a negative effect on mental health despite the apparent increase in work-to-family conflict.  When employees had more control over the work schedule, job satisfaction was greater, the worker had more energy for home life, and experienced better moods.


This brings us back to shift work and divorce.  This study seems to show that control at work, especially over the work schedule, causes employees to return home better prepared to deal with home/life challenges.  All of the reasons for divorce sited previously, have a common theme.  Resolving them involves patience and understandin,g responding to the situation calmly and thoughtfully, and not reacting too quickly.  I wonder how many shift workers who feel they lack control, operate on too little sleep, and frequently use coping mechanisms like smoking, drugs, and alcohol to combat the effects of sleep deprivation are able to patiently work their way through to the solutions needed to reach marital stability. Probably not too many and this may be the reason for the high divorce rates amongst shift workers.

What can you do?  If you see yourself in this last paragraph, slow down, listen to your spouse’s complaints, and get some couples counseling.  If you see a friend, family worker, or co-worker, give them this article and advise them to calmly try and get their partner to commit to couples counseling.  If you are a human resources, health, safety, or operations manager, look at your company’s Employee Assistance Program and ensure it provides assistance in situations like this one.


For those with children, if after trying to improve your marriage, it still fails, consider using the services of All About The Children. Divorced parents who share joint child custody can eliminate the emotional challenges of dealing with paying bills and child related expenses, scheduling visits, and communicating by using All About The Children’s fully encrypted and objective management tool.  Shared parenting is challenging but the communication to facilitate it doesn’t need to be. Professionals in family law agree that using a third party tool like All About The Children reduces the likelihood that the children will get pulled into messy arguments about child support, expense reimbursements, and scheduling visitation.Â


* Tuttle, R. C. and Garr, M., 2007-08-11 “Shift Work, Work-Family Fit and Workers’ Mental Health” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York, New York City Online <PDF>. 2009-11-15 from

©2009 Circadian Age, Inc., -˜Working Nights’

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