Policy and Health Realities of Irregular and Unstable Work Schedules in Africa


Group ofAdrican healthcare workers posed outdoor

Group of African healthcare workers outdoor. Credit: AS photofamily on Freepik.


FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2024:  The immediate cons of an erratic work schedule are clear-cut: You may be tired all the time or missing out on time with loved ones. However, more dire long-term consequences may also be at play according to new research on the associations between work patterns in young adulthood and health outcomes later in life.


The new report published in the journal PLOS ONE, defined a standard work schedule as beginning at 6 a.m. or later and ending at 6 p.m. An evening work schedule meant starting at 2 p.m. or later until midnight, while nighttime schedules were shifts starting at 9 p.m. or later and ending by 8 a.m. Participants had "variable" schedules if they had split or rotating shifts or irregular hours.


"About three-quarters of the work patterns we observed did not strictly conform to working stably during daytime hours throughout our working years," said Dr. Wen-Jui Han, the sole author of the study and professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University.


"This has repercussions," added Han. "People with work patterns involving any degree of volatility and variability were more likely to have fewer hours of sleep per day, lower sleep quality, lower physical and mental functions and a higher likelihood of reporting poor health and depressive symptoms at age 50 than those with stable standard work schedules."


The study also found race and gender-related trends, such as the higher likelihood of Black Americans having schedules linked with poorer health and for women experiencing lower-quality sleep even though they were getting more hours of sleep. The study also found that there is a connection between people's jobs and their social status. It showed that those with fewer resources tend to have more unstable jobs, and this leads to worse health outcomes for them compared to people with more resources. The people with fewer resources bear a disproportionate burden of the negative effects of having unstable jobs.


These findings are particularly concerning in the African context, where many workers face precarious employment conditions and limited access to healthcare and other resources. The rise of the gig economy and shift-based work has further exacerbated these challenges, leaving vulnerable populations at an even greater risk of poor health outcomes.


However, the news is not all bleak. Some African organizations are taking proactive steps to support employees with irregular schedules. For example, flexible work arrangements, on-site wellness programs, and mental health resources can help mitigate the negative impacts. Additionally, policy changes that prioritize worker protections and work-life balance can create a more equitable and sustainable work environment.


As the African workforce continues to evolve, it is crucial that employers, policymakers and community leaders work together to address the unique challenges faced by those navigating irregular work hours. By doing so, we can ensure a healthier, more resilient future for all African workers.


One promising initiative is the African Union's Agenda 2063, which calls for the creation of "an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, values and ethics." This vision includes promoting decent work and improving working conditions across the continent. Through coordinated efforts at the regional, national, and local levels, African leaders can implement policies and programs that protect the health and well-being of workers, particularly those in precarious employment.


Additionally, innovative solutions like the use of technology can help African workers better manage the demands of irregular schedules. For example, mobile apps that track sleep patterns and provide personalized sleep hygiene recommendations or online platforms that facilitate access to mental health services could empower workers to take a more proactive approach to their overall wellness.


While the challenges posed by irregular work hours in Africa are significant, there is cause for optimism. By fostering collaboration, implementing targeted interventions, and embracing technological advancements, we can create a future where all African workers, regardless of their schedules, can thrive both professionally and personally.


Source: Han WJ. How our longitudinal employment patterns might shape our health as we approach middle adulthood—US NLSY79 cohort. 2024-04.03. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0300245. Available from: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0300245



Published: April 13, 2024

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