It stands to reason that earning more money would automatically make people happier.

But not always.

According to the results of a recent study of 28,000 hourly food service and retail workers, “Routine uncertainty in work schedules is even more strongly predictive of worker health and well-being than hourly wages.”

While pay does matter to hourly employees, scheduling practices often matter more.

The study reveals a correlation between scheduling practices and employees’ levels of happiness, stress, and quality of sleep:

  • Employees who work full or partly on-call schedules were much less likely to report feeling happy.  
  • Employees whose shifts were canceled were much more likely to experience greater feelings of distress.
  • Employees who worked on-call shifts were more likely to sleep poorly.

On the flip side, a more predictable work schedule—especially if it also comes with greater advance notice—directly correlates with improved worker happiness.

The predicted probability of worker happiness based on schedule advance notice

Zero to 2-days’ notice~65%
3-6 days’ notice~69%
1-2 weeks’ notice~73%
More than 2 weeks’ notice~74%

While the percentage difference in predicted happiness between almost no notice and two weeks’ scheduling notice is in the single digits, still. Creating a system that allows your employees to be 10 percent more likely to be happy is definitely worth the effort—especially if the primary goal of unpredictable scheduling is to save money (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).

Learn how work schedules for hourly employees are usually set—and how you can use the rules of predictable scheduling to make your team feel way less stressed.

The risk shifting phenomenon at small businesses

Sometimes unpredictable schedules are the result of unpredictable demands. My wife works in healthcare, and operating room personnel are often sent home early, required to stay late, and placed on call due to the peaks and valleys of patient demand.

It’s impossible to predict the flow of patients, especially weeks in advance. So, while unfortunate, unpredictable scheduling also makes some degree of sense.

But there’s another reason why worker schedules are unpredictable: A phenomenon called risk shifting.

Risk shifting is the employer’s way of shifting financial risk to employees.

  • If business is slow today, I’ll send you home. That way I avoid paying “unnecessary” wages.
  • If business is booming today, I’ll make you stay late.

Which means employees never know how much they’ll make this week. Or know when they’ll be required to work a day they didn’t expect to work. Or know when they’ll get home. Or, if they have a family, know when they’ll be able to pick up their kids.

All of which can be incredibly stressful—and make a significant impact on how happy they feel.

  • Having a shift canceled makes an employee 20 percent more likely to feel distressed.
  • Working an on-call shift makes an employee 9.2 percent less likely to feel happy.

Making, say, a dollar more an hour would be nice… but knowing when, well in advance, they will work and when they will be off? That matters more to your employees.

And it matters to your business.

This study found that stores that gave two weeks’ advance scheduling notice and eliminated on-call shifts—especially those where the shift could be canceled within a few hours before it was to start—saw median sales increase by seven percent.

How to make your employees happier with more predictable schedules

According to the researchers, only 39 percent of workers at the 80 largest retail firms have regular schedules. Many get less than three days’ notice of their work schedules.

If that sounds like your business, it’s time to make some changes.

1. Create scheduling guidelines so employees know what to expect

Consistency builds trust. Not knowing what is expected from one day to the next—or how certain decisions will be made—is incredibly stressful.

While your scheduling needs may change, your scheduling practices should not. Create overall scheduling guidelines using objective criteria like:

  • Seniority
  • Experience
  • Skill level, and
  • Availability

Then describe under which conditions those guidelines may need to temporarily change. Let’s say you run a restaurant. You may designate that only hosts that have been with you for over a year will work on busy nights, like Valentine’s Day.

The more your employees understand why scheduling decisions are made, the less likely they are to assume unfair treatment or favoritism.

2. Always provide at least two weeks’ notice

While that might sound impossible, it’s not. If you’re making schedules three days in advance, use the same tools to lengthen your labor forecasting timeline. Chances are you’re simply hedging your bets. Or you’ve simply grown accustomed to posting schedules at the last minute. Either way, you’re making your employees less happy and less productive.

Doing one thing—changing the way you schedule work—can increase your employee’s quality of life. So do it.

3. Reconsider your on-call policy

Think about why you have an on-call policy (even if “on-call” only means coming in early or staying late) in the first place.

For example, before you ask an employee to stay late, make sure you aren’t confusing “urgent” with “important.”

Here are suggestions for ways to re-think your on-call policy:

  • Revisit your delivery policies
  • Revisit your response times
  • Revisit your service hours

Determine what truly matters to your customers… and what does not.

You may find that what “needs” to get done tonight is fine if it gets done tomorrow—especially if in the process it helps ensure that tomorrow an employee’s shift won’t need to be canceled.

Remember: The earlier your employees can plan around their schedules, the happier they will be… and that includes knowing about any scheduling changes that impact their work and personal lives.

4. Use time tracking software

Time tracking software can help make it easier for your team to log hours—and for you to see trends, and use that data to plan ahead.

Choose time tracking software that, at a minimum, integrates with your payroll system. But then think beyond payroll: A great system can provide a comprehensive set of financial reports, ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws, and more.

Of course the primary goal of any time tracking system (even if your “system” involves handwritten timesheets) is to pay employees accurately. But don’t stop there: Use a system that makes running your business easier, and gives you the kind of data you need to make smart decisions about how to improve your business.

Assume that employee schedule stability is your top priority. Then make the necessary changes to other systems and processes in order to support that goal.

While you might not be able to change everything, everything that you can change in order to create more predictable schedules will positively impact the people who matter most to your business—your team.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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