Strange behaviour from shift workers could be 'social jetlag'

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

If you’re stumbling around, not quite your sharpest and your thinking is on the fuzzy side, you may be suffering from what’s called social jetlag.

It all depends on whether you’re a morning person or a night person and when you have to work.

The condition can be a big problem for shift workers, who work into the night or on a rolling, changing schedule.

Researchers, writing in the journal Current Biology, say general wellbeing can be improved if work schedules are more sensitive to biological clocks.

Till Roenneberg of Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Germany says the study found that a simple re-organisation of shifts allowed workers to sleep more on workday nights.

“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,” Roenneberg says. “This is a double-win situation.”

An earlier report by Roenneberg’s team showed a link between social jetlag and obesity, along with other unhealthy habits, including smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol and caffeine.

The researchers got the chance to implement their ideas about sleep and work schedules in a factory thanks to a former labour director at ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe. He was interested in finding ways to improve workers’ health and lower their stress.

In the study, morning people were never made to work late and night owls were never forced to get up early.

After the new schedules, they felt more satisfied with the sleep they did get and experienced slight improvements in their general wellbeing.

“We know that sleep has important implications not only on physical health but also on mood, stress, and social interactions, so that improving sleep will most probably result in many other positive side effects,” says CĂ©line Vetter, the first author of the study.

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