The old adage ‘the early bird catches the worm’ rings true, according to new research that suggests ‘night owls’ may be twice as likely to underperform at work and be at more risk of early retirement due to disability.
People whose body clock or chronotype makes them tend to stay up late and have difficulty rising early are more likely than ‘morning people’ to be sleep deprived which, in the long term, can lead to underperformance and poorer overall health and cognition, a Finnish study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine says.
Morning chronotypes or ‘larks’ tend to do better early in the morning, while evening chronotypes or ‘owls’ do better in the evening, the University of Oulu researchers explain.
“Owls don’t usually fall asleep early enough to get the recommended 7+ hours of sleep on standard working days, leading to sleep debt and catch-up sleep on non-work days, known as social jet lag.”
Sleep deprivation may harm health and weight
The ongoing population-based study found that, of around 2672 men and 3159 women, owls had worse ratings for every variable related to sleep and health, when compared with larks.
Other studies have linked inadequate sleep to a higher risk of overweight and obesity and chronic health conditions such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Employers can help night owls
The researchers recommend chronotype being taken into account in occupational health practice at the individual level and when planning work schedules.
And, they emphasise the importance of night owls taking extra care to live a healthy lifestyle, getting enough sleep and organising appropriate work times, where possible.
9 ways to improve your body clock and sleep
Although chronotypes are largely genetic, environmental factors such as regular exercise, exposure (safely) to sunlight, managing exposure to artificial lighting and keeping a regular sleep schedule can all have an effect.
If you’re someone who has trouble getting to bed early enough to get your eight hours’ sleep a night, try getting your body clock on your side with these nine practical tips:
1. Get plenty of natural daylight in the morning, after you’ve woken up
2. Use low-level artificial lighting in the evening
3. Turn all lights off at sleep time, including night lights
4. Keep to a regular sleep and waking schedule
5. Don’t use computers or electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime
6. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine before bed
7. Talk to your doctor about a short course of melatonin to re-programme your sleep cycle, if you’ve had ongoing disturbed sleep routines
8. Take regular exercise, but not within three hours of bedtime
9. Keep your bedroom for sleep and sex only, and keep it a nice cool 16-18°C.
The study was observational, therefore can’t establish cause and effect, but further investigation is warranted.
Article sources and references
- Räihä T, Nerg I, Jurvelin H, et al. Evening chronotype is associated with poor work ability and disability pensions at midlife: a Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966 Study Occupational and Environmental Medicine Published Online First: 23 February 2021. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2020-107193https://oem.bmj.com/content/early/2021/01/21/oemed-2020-107193
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