The Marriage Podcast for Smart People


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How Shift Work Impacts Marriage And What To Do About It

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 into their work and derive their happiness and satisfaction from their career instead. Some research[iv] suggests that people in distressed marriages sometimes seek out shift work in order to avoid facing their spouses and dealing with their marital problems. This of course leads to further distancing and breakdown in communication. 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 workFast 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