Early bird or night owl? Study links shift worker sleep to ‘chronotype’

Sleep styles may hold the key to designing better work schedules
Published: 1 June 2021

Getting enough sleep can be a real challenge for shift workers affecting their overall health. But what role does being an early bird or night owl play in getting good rest? Researchers from McGill University find a link between chronotype and amount of sleep shift workers can get with their irregular schedules.

“Some people seem to be hardwired to sleep early, while others tend to sleep late. This preference, called chronotype, is modulated by our circadian system – each person’s unique internal timekeeper,” says lead author Diane B. Boivin, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University.

Their study published in Sleep is the first to examine the relationship between chronotype and sleep behaviour in shift workers during morning, evening, and night shifts. To investigate this relationship, the researchers tracked 74 police officers as they worked their usual shifts. For close to a month, the officers wore a watch-like device, allowing researchers to measure their sleep.

Not all shifts created equal

“Our results suggest that the effect of chronotype on sleep duration and napping behavior depends on the shift type. On average early risers sleep 1.1 hours longer on morning shifts, while night owls sleep two hours longer on evening shifts,” says co-author Laura Kervezee, a former Postdoctoral Fellow at The Douglas Research Centre affiliated with McGill University.

The power of naps

While shift workers take naps to reduce the effect of their irregular schedules on their sleep, the researchers found this behaviour was more prominent during night shifts in early risers. Generally, early risers slept less after night shifts compared to night owls – but they also took more naps prior to their night shifts, so their total daily sleep was similar.

The findings could help design strategies to improve sleep in workers with atypical schedules, the researchers say. Such strategies could include work schedules that consider chronobiological principles.

“People involved in shift work experience an increased risk of sleep disturbances and fragmented sleep periods. Since sleep is essential for optimal performance, health, and well-being, it’s important to develop strategies to get better rest,” says Boivin, who is also the Director of the Centre for Study and Treatment of Circadian Rhythms at The Douglas Research Centre.

As next steps, the researchers hope to study the impact of chronotype and shift work on other health outcomes.

About this study

“The relationship between chronotype and sleep behavior during rotating shift work: a field study” by Laura Kervezee, Fernando Gonzales-Aste, Phillipe Boudreau, and Diane B. Boivin was published in Sleep. This study was supported by a grant from the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail.


About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

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