The Price Of An Inconsistent Work Schedule And How To Fix It

Most managers realize that efficient scheduling not only makes their job easier, but makes their employees and customers happier, too.

Good schedules have a positive impact on work environments, but on the flip side, inconsistent work schedules have the opposite effect. Shift work takes a toll on employee health. Long hours, varied schedules, and the graveyard shift stretching into the night can be devastating.

In this article, you’ll learn the effects of having an irregular work schedule and discover methods to effectively manage the issue without sacrificing productivity.

Table of contents

What is considered an irregular work schedule?

An irregular work schedule is one that varies the shift times and total weekly hours in a way that makes it difficult for employees to plan a budget or their personal lives. There is no consistency from one week to the next regarding the days and hours they’ll be working.

About 10%-20% of workers in America have some form of an irregular work schedule, most of them earning less than $40K a year.

Types of work shifts

There are four basic types of work shifts: 

  • First shift: work during the day
  • Second shift: swing shift with an afternoon start time; might overlap first and third shifts
  • Third shift: graveyard or overnight shift
  • Weekend shift: employee works over the weekend

Variances on those shifts are where things get tricky:

  • Fixed shift: employee works the same shift all the time
  • Rotating shift: changed shifts throughout the week or month
  • Split shift: employee works two shifts in a day
  • Clopening shift: employee works closing shift, followed by opening shift
  • Mandatory overtime: employee is required to work longer hours, though overtime pay is provided, which can lead to involuntary full-time employment
  • On-call: employee must be available to work if needed, in addition to their regular shifts
  • Just-in-time: like on-call, employee must be able to work, but no guarantee there will be work 

While the fixed work schedule is the exception, the other shift varieties could be considered an irregular or inconsistent work schedule.

The effects of an inconsistent work schedule

An inconsistent work schedule makes planning life outside of work very difficult for employees.

That leads to significant stress, which feeds into adverse effects that may surprise you. A recent study found that 60% of employees with irregular work schedules exhibited physical stress-related symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches. It gets worse, though.

Increased risk of obesity

An irregular work schedule means that the time meals are eaten constantly varies throughout the 24-hour period.

Studies have shown that eating meals irregularly can cause metabolic syndrome, including diabetes and obesity

That disruption of when an employee is able to eat, mixed with the inevitable irregular sleep schedule, interrupts the body’s metabolic processes because it throws off the internal “time clock” necessary to keep a steady weight. Obesity is a leading cause for several serious diseases, meaning an increase in sick days, use of health benefits, and absenteeism.

Sleep deprivation and associated health risks

Inconsistent schedules affect employees’ ability to get adequate sleep.

Sleep-deprived employees have a higher risk of workplace injury, reduced productivity, increased errors, and an inability to engage emotionally in situationally appropriate ways toward coworkers and customers. 

Response times and decisions by those who are sleep-deprived are comparable to alcohol impairment. Just 18 hours without sleep has a measurable effect comparable to 0.05% blood alcohol. At 24 hours, it’s the same as having a blood alcohol content of 0.1%.

Employee burnout

The stress of dealing with too many hours, not enough hours, or hours that constantly conflict with personal life leads to employee burnout. Managing employee stress early on is crucial.

Using on-call shifts isn’t the answer, since it doesn’t really reduce their hours except on their paycheck. Employees are in a state of tension, not knowing if they’ll be needed or not. In fact, studies showed that being on-call required recovery and rest time, just as if an employee came into work and was paid for their time.

Decreased work productivity

Studies repeatedly show that employees who are tired or aren’t at their physical best have lower productivity.

Even more interesting is that our brains work better when there’s a known routine. Routines reduce decision fatigue, tap into minimal willpower, and capitalize on the ability to focus on what’s important, rather than having to think carefully about what to do next.

Routine and habit are much more effective than willpower. Inconsistent work schedules remove routine from the equation.

Mental health issues

Studies have shown that people who work the night shift, including those doing so occasionally, tend to struggle more with anxiety disorders

An inconsistent work schedule also contributes to increased struggles at home due to work-family conflicts and financial concerns from constantly changing and sometimes unpredictable income. 26% of employees with irregular schedules report frequent conflicts at home.

How to improve staff well-being with scheduling changes

Shift work schedules, in some industries, are impossible to avoid. It’s the nature of the industry, whether it’s healthcare, factory, or service work.

Nevertheless, you can take steps to reduce the negative effects of irregular work schedules, improving both your employees’ lives and your own bottom line through absenteeism.

Even better, in a tight labor market, a consistent or predictable work schedule is seen as a desirable benefit.

Get better at planning your shifts

Shift planning is an art.

You may not need as many employees on staff as you think, or you may be scheduling them in a way that is less than optimal.

Improving shift planning, including through the use of scheduling apps, helps reduce labor costs and employee burnout.

Adopt a consistent rotating shift schedule

A rotating schedule can help make sure that employees share the “pain” of an unpopular shift. 

However, rotating too quickly is hard on employees. They can’t adjust to the new time of day before they’re scheduled for something different. 

Even if the rotation is technically an inconsistent schedule, you can adopt a schedule that is consistent in execution. Create longer time periods on each shift, and be consistent in when it rotates. That way, an employee can plan ahead and know when they can book a vacation or have some free time.

Adopt a predictive scheduling approach

Predictive scheduling laws have taken hold in many states to help employees plan schedules and budgets.

Not all states have put such laws into place.

If your business is located in a state that does not require a predictive schedule, adopt the practice anyway. Schedule several weeks in advance. Avoid last-minute changes when possible, and make no changes any closer than 24 hours out. Allow employees to decline hours that are less than 11 hours from their last shift without fear of reprisal.

And protect employees from themselves. Some may be agreeing to take extra shifts when they probably shouldn’t for health reasons.

Take a people-first approach

Irregular scheduling might make it easier for you to staff gaps in your schedule, but it’s brutal on your team. You may need to change what your schedule requires to adapt to what your employees can offer.

Do you need to adjust your hours? Do you need to change the services offered? Do you need to change how you provide products and services? Could more automation help? 

Burning out your team to maintain a “we’ve always done it this way” approach is defeating. 

How to support staff members with an irregular work schedule

When irregular work schedules are inevitable, it’s important to acknowledge the toll it takes on staff. 

Without any attempt to lessen the impact such a schedule has, you’ll end up needing to fix a toxic work environment that develops from tired, overworked employees. 

Manage time-off requests fairly

Managing time-off requests fairly is a way to reduce some employees having to repeatedly fill the gaps for others who have been approved for time off.

All employees need time off, but it needs to be done in a way where no employee bears the burden of extra shifts, is left to the least desirable days for time off, or is expected to cover a few extra hours for someone absent.

A clear time-off policy should be matched with scheduling tools that make complying easy. 

Show staff appreciation when possible

There are many ways to show employee appreciation, whether it’s a wellness focus or some other perk, but the key to using it with irregular work schedules is to make sure that you take into account all of the shifts.

Night shift workers, for example, often miss out on events because the day shifts are when most people are able to participate. Events or perks should mirror the day shift or be held at shift crossover so all have a chance to benefit.

Consider how you can reduce overtime

Sometimes forced overtime happens not because of short-staffing but of inefficiencies like poor training or lack of equipment. 

Reducing employee overtime is a great way to give them back more of their personal life. Scheduling apps like When I Work make it easy to spot overtime patterns so you can address them better.

Use scheduling tools to make management easier

Studies have shown that employees who have more control over their schedules have improved mental health. 

Using a scheduling tool like When I Work empowers your employees. They get control over their lives, swapping schedules and easily putting in PTO requests. They can see what’s coming up on the schedule by checking their phone. 

Scheduling tools should reduce every possible burden and barrier that comes with an irregular work schedule.

Streamline your scheduling changes with When I Work

When I Work makes it easy to implement real improvement in how you schedule and how your employees experience their work shifts.

  • Scheduling is automated and consistent
  • Managers save time building and managing the work schedule
  • Employees can easily see shifts at any time on their mobile device
  • Employees can ask for changes, swap shifts among themselves, and request time off based on how you’ve set up the system
  • Communication between employees and managers is painless

While inconsistent work schedules can’t be done away with completely, the right tools make them less painful.

You can use When I Work to do all this and more. Try it, FREE, for 14 days when you sign up for a free trial.

Inconsistent work schedules: FAQs

What are the effects of having an inconsistent work schedule?

Employee health, both physical and mental, can be negatively impacted. 

This includes sleep deprivation, obesity, low performance, decreased productivity, and both personal and family stress. Sleep deprivation and obesity cause their own tree of disease and health problems such as reduced immune function, heart disease, high blood pressure, and more.

These lead to absenteeism and additional costs for you. There is also a domino effect when more burden is placed on other employees to fill in the gaps on the schedule.

How can managers optimize scheduling practices to reduce the risk of those adverse effects?

Managers should avoid scheduling employees for consecutive shifts that will deprive them of sleep (e.g. clopening or mixing up day and night shifts close together). Shift lengths could be shortened, rotating shifts could rotate more slowly to allow employees to acclimate, and keeping a close eye on time-off requests and overtime will all reduce risks.

Using online scheduling tools, like When I Work, also helps simplify scheduling based on the boundaries you have in place. 

But more importantly, they empower employees to have more control over their schedule with the lowest barrier to doing so. They can check their schedule, contact managers or coworkers, request time off, swap shifts, and more, all from their mobile devices. This is like finding a better work-life balance at their fingertips.

What steps can employees take to cope with an inconsistent schedule?

The employee has some responsibility, too, and it starts with recognizing the importance of good sleep. Establishing a consistent routine that allows for sleep might mean limiting caffeine or the time of day you eat before sleeping. Exercise and healthy eating are also key components.

Employees should also communicate with managers about issues, including scheduling preferences. A scheduling tool like When I Work makes this very easy for both parties.

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