Precarious Work Schedules and Population Health

A man wearing an apron working in a kitchen.

Unstable and unpredictable work schedules are associated with poor health outcomes in adults, complexity and informality in child-care arrangements, and behavioral problems in young children.

What’s the Issue?

Work has become more precarious in America over the past half century as employers have transferred more of the risks and uncertainties of doing business onto workers and households. As part of this shift, many workers have experienced an erosion of job quality—reductions in the real value of their wages; a loss or cutback of fringe benefits such as retirement plans and health insurance; and an increase in job insecurity. Policymaking responses to the rise in precarious employment have commonly focused on the economic dimensions, exemplified by appeals for a living wage.

Yet, alongside changes in the economic dimension, the temporal dimension of work has also undergone seismic shifts. Unstable and unpredictable work schedules have become the new normal for many workers as the U.S. economy has shifted from manufacturing to service-sector jobs—and from steady Monday through Friday, 9–5 work hours—to a 24/7 economy. In this brief, we synthesize research findings that allow us to connect the dots between precarious work schedules and health, and we identify the gaps that remain to be filled.

What’s Next?

While recent studies have found that unstable and unpredictable schedules are negatively associated with adult sleep and stress; access to child-care arrangements; and child behavior—additional research on the connection between precarious schedules and other indicators of adult and child health and well-being is needed. For example, research should look beyond the retail and food-service sectors to industries such as health care, transportation, and warehousing. Other questions that require more study are: Which population subgroups are hardest hit by schedule instability? Which dimensions of precarious schedules are most consequential? And, which health outcomes are most responsive to precarious schedule conditions?

Finally, while this brief has focused on the United States, schedule inconsistency is also a feature of labor markets globally. In Europe, the European Commission’s recent Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions takes up the issue directly. A broader global perspective on work schedules and population health would afford opportunities to study the effects of such regulations and identify social policies or other contextual conditions that may mitigate or exacerbate the ill effects of precarious schedules.

The temporal dimension of work and its consequences for population health have begun to receive research and policy attention. This growing awareness and activity could create a valuable synergy in which localized experiments offer research opportunities that continue to enhance awareness that time matters when it comes to health and well-being.