The brutal psychological toll of erratic work schedules

Unpredictable hours and variable pay may cause even more distress than low wages.

By Daniel Schneider and

Kristen Harknett

June 27

Stacey, a single mother, was getting 30 hours a week when she first started working at a big-box store in the Bay Area, in early 2015. But her hours had grown erratic by the time we interviewed her, a few months later: 20 hours one week, 12 the next, then 12 again, and then only eight. The following week was even worse: just four hours, and on a Saturday — meaning she’d need to pay for child care for her 8-year-old son.

The one bright spot in that short week was that “now the pain is going away,” she said — the discomfort she got in her feet and her legs from standing all day. But even that wasn’t worth the chaotic schedule and resulting financial pressure.

When we talked with Stacey (a pseudonym, as required by the research-ethics rules we worked under), the single mother was making a little better than California’s minimum wage of $9, and she relied on ultra-high-interest payday loans to get through the slow periods.

The rallying cry for millions of workers is a $15 an hour minimum wage. But in addition to low pay, erratic schedules are another bane of American workers, particularly in food service and retail: They interfere mightily with family life and are associated, our research finds, with poor sleep, psychological distress and lower levels of happiness.”

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Sarah Block