'Challenging The Circadian Clock Affects The Performance Of Men And Women Differently': Study

19/04/2016 2:12 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Mixed race businesswoman working late in office

Pulling the graveyard shift impacts the work performance of women more than men, according to new research.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday, found women's ability to perform tasks diminished more than men when working night shifts into the early morning.

The UK's University of Surrey found both men and women shift workers' abilities were reduced by night time work but the impact was worse for women -- a result that has big implications for female-heavy sectors like healthcare.

The journal article can be read in full here.

The study's researchers used a controlled environment with 28-hour days and no natural light-dark cycles to replicate a shift work pattern.

night shift worker

New research shows women fare worse than men when it comes to night shift performance.

The next step was to test participants' attention, motor control and working memory every 3 hours when they were awake, with female participants' performance of some tasks hit harder than the men.

"The main effect of sex was significant for accuracy, which was lower in women," the study found.

"Extrapolation of these laboratory findings to the real world would suggest that women are more affected by night-shift work than men.

"Indeed, reports that have looked at sex differences in working hours, work shifts, and occupational injuries show that women seem to be at increased risk for occupational injuries during extended work shifts, nonstandard shifts, and changing shifts."

But the study also noted that the difference between men and women "may in part reflect social factors such as family and childcare responsibilities that lead women to work longer hours and to sleep less on days off than men".

In Australia, about 1.4 million people are shift workers, with numbers likely to rise as demand grows for a 24-hour workforce.

Seventeen percent of male employees usually do shift work, compared with 15 percent of all female employees, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

Mining is the most popular industry for shift work with men, while for women it's health care and hospitality, according to the ABS.

night construction worker

The study's the first of its kind into how circadian rhythm changes impact men and women.

The trouble with shift work is that it messes with the body's circadian clock -- the biological timer honed to align with the rising and setting sun.

Disrupting this natural rhythm has already been linked to sleep, mood and cognition disorders, as well as depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Now performance at work can be added to the list.

Study co-author Nayantara Santhi described the latest findings as a breakthrough.

"We show for the first time that challenging the circadian clock affects the performance of men and women differently," Santhi said.

Given the risks, experts say the key to surviving shift work is to take care of your body.

Academics suggest resetting your circadian clock by sticking to a regular sleep cycle, and trying to avoid a weekly roster that swings between night and day shifts.

They also advise making time to see friends and family as night work can lead to increased isolation and higher levels of anxiety and relationship problems.

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