Focus on Fatigue

Focus on Fatigue, Issue 40: Shift work and the family

By March 10, 2016 No Comments

Welcome to Focus on Fatigue,

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that the need for close personal relationships (family and friends) is the third most important biological drive of all humans. It comes right after physiological needs, such as food, and safety needs. We all need to feel that we belong and are loved. In this month’s Focus on Fatigue we will examine the effect that shift work can have on personal relationships, and what shift work families can do to ameliorate these effects.

The FRMS Team

InterDynamics - Navigating Complexity. Delivering Clarity.

InterDynamics Pty Ltd
320 Adelaide Street Brisbane Qld 4000
Tel +61 2 8404 0400 Ext 23

Views expressed in articles and links provided are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of InterDynamics (except where directly attributed).

Feature Articles

Shift work and the Family

Over the years a great deal of research has been done into the effects of shift work on the physiological health of shift workers. This has included research regarding the risks of developing a wide array of diseases, the risks associated with sleep deprivation and changes to the circadian rhythm, even hormonal and genetic changes that can be associated with shift work.

A less intensely researched area, however, involves the effects of shift work on the personal life of the shift worker. A basic need for social relationships is something that is hardwired into every human and working nontraditional hours, as most shift workers do, can create barriers to developing and successfully maintaining these social relationships.

How can shift work have a negative effect on my personal relationships?

Shift work has been found to have modest, but significant, negative effects on familial relationships. These include reduced marital quality and satisfaction, less or reduced quality time with children, increased risk of teenage deliquency, and an increased risk of divorce. A New Zealand study of shift workers who worked long hours in inflexible work schedules found that isolation could also pose a problem in shift worker families, not just for the shift worker but also for the non-shift working partner.

Sleep deprivation is a major issue for many shift workers, and the research around this area can also provide insight into the detrimental effects of shift work on families. Studies have found that sleep deprivation is associated with feeling less gratitude towards partners, an increase in interpersonal conflict, reduced empathy and reduced emotional control.

Can shift work have benefits for my personal relationships?

The news isn’t all negative, and shift work can indeed privide opportunities that traditional hours of employment may not, such as alternative child care arrangements, providing opportunities to spend more time with children during the day, and the ability to attend school functions that might otherwise be problematic. It is certainly the case that some people prefer to work night shifts because those shifts fit in better with the individual’s lifestyle or personal requirements.

What can shift worker families do to strengthen their personal relationships?

What are the most effective strategies shift workers, and their families, can use to ensure that their personal relationships are at an optimum? Unfortunately the research hasn’t yet extended as far as providing evidence-based answers to this very important question. Of course, many shift worker families use a variety of strategies that enable their family to function effectively. For those who would like a few extra hints and tricks, the following strategies have been recommended by researchers in the area:

United we stand

Maintaining a strong family unit in the face of shift work challenges is, partly, about attitude. Every member of the family must be willing to work together and make compromises when necessary. It is impossible for a shift worker to slip into the normal routine of the non-shift working family the moment they walk in the door. It is just as impossible for the non-shift working family members to arrange their lives entirely around the needs of the shift worker. This is not because the different members of the family aren’t trying hard enough, it’s just because they’re out of synch with each other. If everyone works together, perhaps the family can find ways for these two disparate routines to complement each other, instead of clashing head-on.

Recognising mood swings for what they are

As mentioned previously, sleep deprivation lowers people’s emotional stability. We get grumpy, we’re more easily irritated by little things, and we don’t always appreciate our loved ones as much as we would if we were well-rested. If a shift worker comes home from a long night shift and is grumpy, this is not because their personality has changed or because they love their family less, it’s because they need sleep. After they have slept, chances are they’ll revert back to their usual selves. The same is true for anyone who has gone too long without sleep. Recognising these sorts of minor mood swings for the temporary phenomenon they are can help family members understand what’s happening when they occur.

Planning ahead

Many shift work families talk about the importance of The Family Calendar! This is the big planner that hangs on the wall and tells everyone where everyone else is going to be. Shift times will always be the first thing the shift worker adds to the family calendar. This gives other family members an idea of when they may be able to plan time with the shift worker, even if it’s simply having a meal together as a family.

Prioritise sleep

Sleep deprivation is one of the greatest challenges facing shift workers. A lack of sleep will affect every other aspect of a shift worker’s life and, by extension, the whole family. Therefore, it is essential that after shift times are added to the family calendar, sleep times are added next. It is imperative that the family work together to protect these sleep blocks from interruption. The shift worker can ensure they are using good sleep hygiene to increase the chances of getting good quality sleep. Other family members can arrange to either be out of the house at those times, or to keep noise levels to a minimum.

A solid schedule of sleep blocks also provides reassurance for family members regarding the times they can freely make noise without interrupting the sleep of the shift worker. After all, it’s their house too and no one can be quiet all the time.

Making time for each other

The shift roster has been added to the family calendar. Sleep blocks have been decided upon and marked in. What comes next? Family time, of course. No family can maintain strong relationships without spending time together. This includes time as a family (if children are present) and time as a couple. Quality will generally be more important than quantity.

As a couple, it may be necessary to put aside two periods of time where possible. One for talking about household issues such as finances, why the lawn hasn’t been mowed, and the leaky tap in the bathroom. The second for relaxing and enjoying each other’s company.

Making time for me

Everyone needs time away from both work and family in order to maintain their individual sense of self. This may be solitary time for reflection, or it might be time catching up with friends. It may involve participation in a hobby or just reading a good book. Every member of the family is entitled to some time alone, or with friends, both those who are working shifts and those who aren’t.

Communication is key

On a practical level communication can be as simple as making sure everyone knows the roster of the shift worker, and the schedule of everyone else in the household. A shift working parent can’t attend their child’s football game, even if they’re available, if they don’t know it’s on!

On an emotional level, communication is all about checking in with each other. This can include texting during a break or leaving notes for each other. Get creative! For example, draw some simple graph lines on a small whiteboard and hang it in a well-used area of the house. One axis on the graph could indicate energy levels, ranging from ‘exhausted’ to ‘bouncing off the walls.’ The second axis could indicate mood, ranging from ‘everything is awful’ to ‘everything is awesome.’ Each family member has their own magnet to place anywhere on the graph to indicate their present emotional state. For example, Mum might be feeling a little tired (moderate on the energy scale) but she’s happy she accomplished everything she wanted to do today (high on the mood scale). This is a simple concept that can allow each member to tell others in the family how they’re doing, and when they need extra support, without having to say it in words.

When it all goes wrong

Adding shifts to the calendar, adding sleep to the calendar, making time for family, for spouses, for the individual. And don’t forget to find time to wash the dog! Put all this together and it can feel like you need 30 hours in every day just to fit it all in. This, of course, is where compromising comes in. Most people find it impossible to do everything they need to do all the time, whether they are shift workers or not. Therefore, when schedules clash, plans go out the window and the dog is still covered in mud, it will be necessary to be okay with life not working for a while. Throw your hands in the air. Move your magnet to the ‘life is awful’ part of the graph. Laugh. Give each other hugs, even if it’s in the moment before you charge out the door on the way to your next shift. Then try again tomorrow. After all, family is what life is all about!


  • Davis, K. D., Goodman, W. B., Pirretti, A. E. and Almeida, D. M. (2008) Nonstandard work schedules, perceived family well-being, and daily stressors. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(4), 991-1003.
  • Gordon, A. M. and Chen, S. (2013) The role of sleep in interpersonal conflict: Do sleepless nights mean worse fights? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(2), 168-175.
  • Handy, J. (2015) Maintaining family life under shiftwork schedules: A case study of a New Zealand Petrochemical Plant. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 39(1), 29-37.
  • Hendrix, J. A. and Parcell, T. L. (2014) Parental nonstandard work, family processes, and delinquency during adolescence. Journal of Family Issues, 35(10), 1363-1393.
  • Monk, T. H. and Folkard, S. (1992) Making shiftwork tolerable. Taylor & Francis: London, UK.
  • That, Kadri and Mills, Melinda (2016) Out of Time: The Consequences of Non-Standard Employment Schedules for Family Cohesion. Springer Briefs in Sociology: London, UK.
  • White, D. (2016) Shift work and relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 25, 2016, from
  • WorkCover (2016) How to manage shiftwork: Workcover NSW health and safety guide. WorkCover NSW: Gosford, NSW.

InterDynamics News

Conferences and presentations

This section outlines recent and upcoming InterDynamics speaking engagements and/or conferences that we recommend and will be attending.

April will see InterDynamics head off to conferences in both Montreal and South Carolina. Details are given below:

FMAS2016 (Symposium on Fatigue Management Approaches) – International Civil Aviation Organization

5-8 April 2016, Montreal, Canada

The Fatigue Management Approaches in Aviation Symposium is being convened by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) from 5 to 6 April 2016 in Montréal, Canada. The event will provide an important information sharing opportunity for rule-making authorities, airlines, air traffic service providers, international general aviation operators, international helicopter operators, and all aviation professionals involved in safety-related activities.

Following the symposium, ICAO will host the 2016 Conference of the FRMS Forum from 7 to 8 April 2016. This meeting will develop themes related to the regulation and implementation of Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) in a flight operations context. The content will have high relevance to operators and regulators alike and will provide unique insights for States and other service providers considering the implementation of FRMS.

For more information, please visit the website.

2016 Crew Management and Timekeeping Conference – Norfolk Southern Corporation

10-13 April 2016, South Carolina, USA

This is an annual North American Rail Industry Conference. It facilitates the railroads to share and compare benchmarking data of Crew Management and Timekeeping.

The conference also provides opportunity for railroads to share their progress and practices when implementing Fatigue Risk Management Solutions. InterDynamics is a regularly invited attendee to share with the conference our products and services that can support the railroads.

InterDynamics is looking forward to attending this ‘invitation only’ conference. For more information about the Norfold Southern Corporation, please visit their website.

In the News

Article: Overnight shifts can be stress on families, but many make it work

by Abdalla, Patrick (26 October 2014)

Frank Hullihen works the night shift on a toll plaza in Wyoming. This article discusses how he and his family make it work and the little things that can help shift workers get through the night, and through life, without losing their relationship.

Video: Shiftwork and Relationships

by IntegratedSafet (7 October 2010)

This is a short, humorous excerpt from the DVD REM’s Sleep – Making Your Shift Work by Integrated Safety. It provides some tips on making shift work managable in your family.


Article: Maintaining family life under shiftwork schedules: A case study of a New Zealand petrochemical plant

Handy, J. (2010) Maintaining family life under shiftwork schedules: A case study of a New Zealand petrochemical plant. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 39(1), 29-37.


This article discusses the impact of long-term shiftwork on the families of male shiftworkers at a New Zealand petrochemical company. The findings are based primarily on interviews with twenty-seven shiftworkers and seventeen female partners, supplemented by informal observations of the organisation. All respondents described shiftwork as having a profound  influence on the economic, temporal, social and emotional patterns of family life. Men and women gave divergent accounts, reflecting their differing roles within the family. Whilst the company compensated workers well financially for the inconveniences of shiftwork, the rigidity of the shiftwork system meant that families shouldered the primary responsibility for resolving the tensions between work and family life. In consequence, women paid a high price for their partner’s employment, often sacrificing their own careers in order to take primary responsibility for organising family life.

Leave a Reply