Managing 24/7

Shift Work & Divorce: Do shift workers have higher divorce rates?

At some point in your career, you’ve probably heard someone lament that the divorce rate for shift workers is double or triple the rate for dayworkers.

If you’re acquainted with an employee on the night shift who’s on his fourth marriage, this may have confirmed in your mind what you had heard — even though you could probably find a dayworker with a similarly troubled marital history.

Does scientific research support the common belief that shiftwork multiplies the chance of divorce? In reality, little research has been done on shift work’s effect on marriage. In this article, we’ll take a look at three studies that looked at shift work and divorce and report what they found.

Study 1 – Moderate Increased Risk of Divorce

In a study published in 1990, Lynn White, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska, found that shift work raised the likelihood of divorce from 7% to 11% — a moderate increased risk of 57%. She offered two theories on why shift work increased the likelihood of divorce:

First, it may “reduce the barriers” to divorce by “encouraging more independent lifestyles and reducing spouses’ psychological dependence on one another.”

Second, it may “increase alternative attractions” by introducing shift workers to a “nighttime community that is less committed to conventional lifestyles.”

When interviewed by CIRCADIAN in the 1990s, White told us her results showed that “shift work is associated with very general decreases in marital quality.” But she cautioned that the results may have been skewed because “people whose marriages are already drifting apart may be more likely to choose shiftwork.”

White’s study was based on telephone interviews with 1,700 married men and women.
In addition to the finding on the divorce rate, the study also found that shift workers scored somewhat lower on ratings in five key areas:

Marital happiness. This aspect of the study asked questions about people’s happiness with aspects of their marriage such as companionship, love, and taking care of things around the house, as well as respondents’ rating of their own marriage as compared to others and their estimation of whether their marriage was getting better or worse.

Number of disagreements. Respondents were asked about how often they argued over housework, how often they had serious quarrels, and whether arguments ever escalated into violence.

Marital problems. Questions asked in this part of the study were designed to measure the extent to which a spouse’s behavior created difficulties in the marriage, based on such issues  as being domineering or critical or having irritating habits.

Sexual problems. The study also examined the respondents’ level of satisfaction with their sexual relationship and their spouse’s faithfulness, as well as whether or not jealousy was a problem helped

Child-related problems. Questions in this part of the study focused on whether or not the respondent thought the division of child care responsibilities was fair and whether children irritated the shift worker when he or she stayed home during the day.

Among her other findings:

•    The likelihood of divorce wasn’t significantly affected by whether it was the husband or the wife who was the shift worker.

•    In cases where one or both partners became shift workers, there was a significant increase in the number of disagreements.

•    When neither spouse had a shift work schedule, child-related problems were greatly alleviated.

In terms of its validity, White’s study had positive and negative aspects. On the plus side, it mathematically controlled for factors such as the respondent’s education, race, age, number of children, years married, and family income. On the down side, there was no strict definition of what defined a person as a shiftworker; respondents were merely asked whether their jobs involved shiftwork.

The study, “The Effect of Shift Work on the Quality and Stability of Marital Relations,” appeared in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in May, 1990.

Study 2 –Increase in Divorce…But Not for All Shift Workers

In her book Working in a 24/7 Economy (Russell Sage Foundation, 2003), University of Maryland sociologist Harriet Presser took a comprehensive look at how different factors influence divorce and separation rates for shift workers. In her examination, she used data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) from 1987-1988 and 1992-1994.

Some of her key findings:

Overall divorce/separation rates: Millions of American couples include a spouse who works late or rotating hours. Presser found that, in general, such couples experienced a higher separation and divorce rates than those with spouses working only fixed daytime jobs, although there were exceptions:

Couples with no children or with children aged 19 or older. Presser found that there is no increased risk of divorce for shift workers who didn’t have any children or have children that are 19 and older.

However, for shift work couples with children under 19-years old, the risk of divorce increased up to six times when one of the spouses worked between midnight and 8 a.m. as compared to daytime hours.

When both people work. Among couples that included a spouse working shiftwork, she found that dual-earner couples (both work) had higher separation and divorce rates than single-earner couples, provided the single earner was the husband.

When one person works. Increased divorce/separation risk was dependent on who worked. A marriage in which the single earner was the wife working shift work was associated with an increased risk of divorce. However, when it was the husband who working shift work, there was no increased risk of divorce.

Study 3 – No Significant Increased Risk of Divorce 

In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Radford University psychologists Shawn McCoy and Michael Aamodt investigated whether or not police officers had a higher rate divorce/separation rates than people working in other occupations. As part of their study, they also took a look at how shiftwork, overtime, and weekend work impacted divorce rates.

To conduct the study, they examined data from a 2000 U.S. Census report called the “2000 People and Housing One Percent Sample Census Survey.” This data contained 449 occupations and listed the employees’ current (2000) marital status. From the data, the researchers were able to develop a formula to calculate the percentage of people in each occupation that had been divorced or separated:

The idea that divorce rates are unusually high for law enforcement workers is unfounded. In fact, the divorce/separation rates for law enforcement occupations (14.47%) were lower than the national average (16.96%).

Shift work and weekend work did not lead to a significant increase in divorce/separation rates. As part of the data analysis, the researchers rated each of the occupations according to the extent to which it involved shift work, overtime, and weekend work. They hypothesized that these factors would be sources of occupational stress and lead to increased divorce rates. However, they found that none of these variables had a significant impact on divorce rates.

The study, “A Comparison of Law Enforcement Divorce Rates with Those of Other Occupations” was published online in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology on October 20, 2009.

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