Working mothers most in need of social support are less likely to receive it

Release Date: September 21, 2016 This content is archived.

Jessica Su, assistant professor of sociology.

Jessica Su, assistant professor of sociology

“Social safety nets are important buffers from anxiety and stress. They give working mothers confidence that help is there when it’s needed. Safety nets provide peace of mind. ”
Jessica Su, assistant professor
Department of Sociology

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The night shift or any other nonstandard work schedule presents many challenges for working mothers. Besides the difficulty of managing the job’s hours, there are daily tasks and unexpected crises that arise outside of work. They might need someone to watch a child or provide a ride. There are doctor visits and school functions. Knowing people who can help in a pinch can provide a private safety net.

Now a new study by Jessica Su, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, and Rachel Dunifon, PhD, a professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University, links nonstandard work schedules to weaker private safety nets, particularly for African-Americans, the less educated and those who persistently work outside the typical 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday schedule.

However, there also is evidence in some cases that switching from a standard to a nonstandard schedule increases the safety net.

These mixed results, published Monday in the Journal of Marriage and Family, suggest that the working mothers most in need social support are the least likely to actually have access to it.

The research breaks new ground and is among the first quantitative studies to use robust methods and a large sample to examine the relationship between maternal nonstandard work schedules and social support.

“Social safety nets are important buffers from anxiety and stress. They give working mothers confidence that help is there when it’s needed. Safety nets provide peace of mind,” says Su, the paper’s lead author.

“You’re already a working mother, balancing all of life’s complexities with your work schedule and you don’t have a strong safety net. That’s detrimental,” she says.

Su says the link between nonstandard schedules and weak social support is consistent regardless of what that support might be. The finding suggests that it’s not a lack of a connection with people who might be able to help in a particular area, such as child care, but rather a general sense of weak support across many aspects of the mother’s life.

“On the other hand, we don’t know why switching to a nonstandard schedule increased the safety net,” said Su. “The data set doesn’t present us with why someone switched to that schedule.”

Job stress, fatigue and a poor home life might serve to weaken social support, but there are some people who use a nonstandard schedule strategically to help others in ways that 9-to-5 workers cannot, according to Su.

“It could be a matter of tag-team parenting,” she says. “One spouse taking care of daily chores while the other is at work.”

Su says additional research is needed to explain the divergent findings.

The current study involving 2,716 women who gave birth in large cities from 1998-2000 developed from questions raised by the authors’ previous research on nonstandard work schedules, research conducted mostly from the perspective of parents and their children and other interpersonal relationships.

Those results suggested people working nonstandard schedules were less likely to be involved in their communities; they spent less time with their spouses; had high levels of conflict in their relationships; and were more likely to get divorced. This in turn affected the children in the relationship and their development.

“We started thinking of what we already knew about nonstandard work schedules and interpersonal relationships and asked if those effects might spill over into broader social networks,” says Su. “What we’re finding is that mothers most likely to work a nonstandard schedule are also the mothers most likely to experience these negative consequences.”

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