The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Counting the Drawer, or Counting Sheep?

Stable work schedules mean better sleep for retail sales associates

Headshot of Susan LambertImproving schedule stability in the retail sector means better sleep for sales associates, according to a new study co-authored by Susan J. Lambert.

Lambert, a leading scholar of the "work" side of work-life issues, studies low-skilled, hourly jobs and whether it is possible to create a better model of work for both hourly low-wage employees and employers.

The study was a randomized experiment conducted at Gap Inc., designed to improve multiple aspects of scheduling practices in hourly retail jobs—from predictability to consistency to workers' input. The report focused on sales associates' health and well-being—both before and after the intervention was implemented.

An interdisciplinary partnership between scholars at UChicago, the University of California Hastings College of Law and the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, the report examined the effects of a scheduling intervention held at 28 stores—15 in the San Francisco Bay area and 13 in the Chicago metropolitan area. Researchers found that following the experiment, sales associates reported their sleep quality improved by 6 percent to 8 percent.

"We found that even modest improvements to work schedules can make a meaningful difference to workers' health and well-being," said Lambert, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

Poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation have negative short- and long-term effects on health and impede the ability to learn. According to the study, many sales associates support themselves and lack necessities such as food and housing and are financially stressed due to the inability to secure a minimum number of work hours. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that they also have a hard time sleeping.

"Employers may not be aware of the ways unstable schedules produce significant financial and health hardships on many of their valued employees," said study co-author Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Highlights of the study include:

Worker experiences before intervention implementation

Effects of the intervention

"This important research sheds light on the challenges experienced by people with unstable work schedules," said Claire Gibbons, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "The findings show that a more predictable work schedule can improve workers' sleep and stress levels—both of which are key factors in living a healthy life."

The findings provide evidence for businesses and for legislative efforts of the potential health benefits of improving the stability and predictability of scheduling in retail and beyond.

"It has been well known that management practices can have an impact on workers' health. What our study shows is that it is possible to have sensible management policies that improve workers' lives without compromising on the bottom line," said Saravanan Kesavan, Associate Professor and Sarah Graham Kenan Scholar at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The high rates of food and financial insecurity, and long-term negative health effects of sleep deprivation highlight that a move to more stable scheduling is not just about profits. As the researchers explain, "it's about corporate social responsibility. Stable scheduling is an ethical issue that also has concrete business benefits: it's a win-win."

The Stable Scheduling Study was supported by generous grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Evidence for Action program, the Institute of International Education in collaboration with the Ford Foundation, Center for Popular Democracy, the Suzanne M. Nora Johnson and David G. Johnson Foundation, and the Gap.

inside a retail clothing store: a woman arranges hanging clothes while a few customers look at sweaters and coats