Why 'night owls' struggle with working 9 to 5

Morning larks constantly outperformed night owls in tests throughout the day. [Photo: Getty]
Morning larks constantly outperformed night owls in tests throughout the day. [Photo: Getty]

“Night owls”, aka people who are late to bed and late to rise, may be at a disadvantage in jobs with typical working hours of 9am to 5pm, a study has found.

As anyone who has ever struggled to drag themselves out of bed will know, some of us just aren’t morning people.

In fact, around half of us (between 40% and 50%) are “night owls”, who prefer going to sleep later and getting up after 8:20, while others are “morning larks” who prefer early bedtimes and earlier wake-ups.

And while there is a proven genetic basis for the night owl/morning lark theory, many traditional workplaces still insist on working hours of roughly 9am to 5pm – which makes life especially difficult for night owls, according to the latest research.

The researchers took 38 people who identified as either morning larks or night owls and assessed them between the hours of 8am to 8pm, asking them to do various tasks and report on their tiredness levels.

Morning larks reported as least sleepy and had their quickest reaction times during the morning tests.

Meanwhile, while night owls performed better in the evening (8pm) compared to in the morning – but they did not perform significantly better than the larks even at this later time.

What’s more, at all time points throughout the day, the morning larks outperformed the evening owls in tests – suggesting the latter group continue to be at a disadvantage throughout the day.

The findings “could be partly driven by the fact that night owls tend to be compromised throughout their lives”, according to lead researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs, of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health.

“Night owls during school have to get up earlier, then they go into work and they have to get up earlier, so they’re constantly having to fight against their preferences and their innate rhythms.”

Dr Facer-Childs added: “A typical day might last from 09:00 to 17:00, but for a night owl this could result in diminished performance during the morning, lower brain connectivity in regions linked to consciousness, and increased daytime sleepiness.”

She suggested more flexible working hours could benefit society as a whole.

“If, as a society, we could be more flexible about how we manage time, we could go a long way towards maximising productivity and minimising health risks.”

And it seems as if some schools may be catching on to the benefit of later start times, with MPs debating calls for the school day to start at 10am to help tired teenagers.

Morning people don’t just have an easier time of it at school and at work – they also benefit from a health perspective.

Those who peak in the early hours of the day are less at risk of breast cancer compared to their ‘evening’ counterparts, according to a study published last year.

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