A Potentially Easy Way to Make Workers Less Sleepy

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Obligation To Care
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Sleep: Almost everyone wants more of it, and yet all the sleep-hygiene advice in the world usually falls flat when set against the rigid realities of school and work schedules. And to make things worse, we tend to have totally different sleep schedules on days we do and don’t work, leading to “social jet-lag” that causes sleep debt to pile up further. New research, though, points to a potential way to improve the situation.

In an interesting study in Current Biology, a team led by Dr. Céline Vetter of the Institute for Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximillian-Unviersity in Munich conducted what they say is the first attempt at adjusting work shifts to individuals’ sleep tendencies in an industrial setting. First they determined each worker in the study’s “chronotype” by having them complete an established sleep-schedule questionnaire (which you can actually fill out yourself here, if you’re not too sleepy).

Then the researchers manipulated the experiment so some workers’ shifts would be adjusted to better suit their sleep tendencies (to oversimplify slightly: night owls were given fewer morning shifts and early birds fewer late ones), the goal being to see whether and to what extent this improved these employees’ self-reported quality of life and reduced their social jet-lag.

While the study had a pretty small sample size, this intervention appears to have worked — albeit for some sleep types better than others: 

We observed a significant increase of self-reported sleep duration and quality, along with increased wellbeing ratings on workdays among extreme chronotypes. The CTA schedule reduced overall social jetlag by 1 hr, did not alter stress levels, and increased satisfaction with leisure time (early types only). Chronotype-based schedules thus can reduce circadian disruption and improve sleep; potential long-term effects on health and economic indicators need to be elucidated in future studies.

Shift work is different from non-shift work, of course — an office that’s open about ten hours a day rather than 24 would obviously have less room for this sort of experimentation. But it’s still a useful reminder that society often crams people into sleep schedules that don’t make sense, probably leading to all sorts of avoidable physical and mental problems.