Shift workers commonly struggle with getting quality sleep, many logging under 6 hours of shut-eye per day. However, new research indicates that sleep quality is impacted by more than just the timing of your work; a person’s “early bird” or “night owl” tendencies play a significant role as well.
Conducting research for the Institute of Medical Psychology in Germany, a team of medical experts found that workers’ sleep (and general sense of well-being) can be enhanced by sticking to work schedules that naturally coincide with their biological clocks. Using a real German factory as their study site, and actual employees as subjects, the researchers looked for any changes that would improve their sleep, lower stress levels and benefit overall health. The results of their study were discussed in the journal Current Biology.
After factoring the chronotype of each employee (as early, intermediate or late in regards to their natural sleeping patterns), the researchers created a shift scheduling model that took t very information into account, pairing workers with shift times at which they felt most awake and alert. The result? They were able to sleep longer and more deeply once they got off work, and felt less of an urge to catch up on lost sleep during their time off.
“A ‘simple’ re-organization of shifts according to chronotype allowed workers to sleep more on workday nights,” Till Roenneberg, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. “As a consequence, they were also able to sleep less on their free days due to a decreased need for compensating an accumulating sleep loss. This is a double-win situation.”
Employees reported greater satisfaction with their sleep quantity and quality, and also said that their “social jetlag” (the gap between their desired sleep time and the period actually allowed by their work lives and personal commitments) decreased by at least one hour. Shift workers, not surprisingly, tend to be especially susceptible to the effects of social jetlag, which can worsen health problems beyond sleep such as obesity and unhealthy habits: cigarette smoking and excessive drinking are two prominent examples. If employees are permitted to take shifts corresponding to the times of day when they already feel most awake and alert, they not only sleep better, but also experience greatly improved long-term health.
Yet although these improvements were considerable, the study did note one significant drawback: people who preferred to stay up later did not benefit as greatly from the new shift work schedule as the early risers or intermediate chronotypes. Roenneberg linked this absence of change to the fact that, just because someone likes to stay up later doesn’t mean they are actually nocturnal; ultimately, nighttime work routines are simply more demanding on every employee, despite their individual sleeping habits.