Gains to be made from getting work in sync with our circadian rhythms


While circadian rhythms can have multiple peaks, they have one maximum peak which is the time of day when we reach the top of our daily alertness, vitality and energy levels. The timing of this maximum peak during the day determines our chronotype.

The circadian rhythms of most people follow similar daily patterns, however, there are important individual differences in chronotypes. Some people are referred to as morning types as their daily performance peak occurs early during the day, some are evening types as their peak occurs later in the day and many are so-called intermediate types.

Researchers estimate that 40 per cent of adults are either morning or evening types and the remaining 60 per cent are intermediate types. It is also estimated that the daily peaks of morning and evening types can be as much as 12 hours apart, in other words, extreme morning and extreme evening types could share a bed and never see each other because their daily rhythms are diametrical opposites.

For example, chronobiology can teach us important lessons about how to organise our daily work tasks. Many morning types start their day by responding to emails, wasting their most precious and productive hours, and only later during the day, after they surpassed their cognitive peak, they start focusing on mentally more demanding tasks such as working on a complicated project report.

On the other hand, traditional working hours require evening types to start work early during the day when they are at their most unproductive but are then sent home in the late afternoon when they are entering the most productive phase of their day.

Awareness and understanding of individual differences in chronotypes can help companies and their managers to make best use of their human capital by matching their workloads to their body clocks. Considering chronotypes can also help companies to better select the right candidates for certain tasks and jobs.

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For example, it makes sense for a manager of a radio morning show to consider the chronotypes of potential candidates to assess their suitability for a job which requires getting up at 3am. However, while companies use all kinds of psychometric testing to assess prospective employees, chronotypes, which can be easily measured through questionnaires, are almost never considered.

Awareness and understanding of chronotypes can also help to better compose teams. For some teams that have to perform at their best simultaneously, such as surgical crews, emergency responders, sport outfits and orchestras, it would be desirable to have team members with similar chronotypes and schedule work at their joint daily peaks.

Other teams that perform tasks requiring sustained attention, such as long-haul flight crews, nursing wards and nuclear power plant operators, would benefit from differences in chronotypes to ensure that there is always someone who is attentive and can alert the others in an emergency.

Our research into the workplace effects of chronobiology is just starting but we hope that it will ultimately lead to widespread changes in how daily work schedules are organised in companies worldwide.

Stefan Volk is a senior lecturer in International Business and a co-director of the Body, Heart and Mind in Business Research Group at the University of Sydney Business School.

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