The chronobiology of work

By Dr Stefan Volk
Location: Sydney, Australia

Not a morning person? Make it work for you! Our academics are investigating how organisations can take account of biological clock variations to maximise employees’ effectiveness.

In 2017, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a group of researchers who discovered the underlying molecular mechanisms controlling the so-called biological clock. The researchers outlined how humans, and many other living organisms, synchronise their daily biorhythms with the 24-hour rotations of our planet. Each of us has specific ‘circadian rhythms’ affecting our bodies and brains: predictable patterns that determine when we are at our mental and physical energy peaks and troughs throughout the day.

While circadian rhythms can have multiple high points, they have one maximum peak: the time of day when we reach the top of our daily alertness, vitality, and energy levels – that is, when we are capable of performing at our very best. The timing of this daily peak determines our chronotype.

While the circadian rhythms of most people follow similar daily patterns, there are important individual differences in chronotypes. People referred to as ‘morning types’ have a daily performance peak early during the day. For ‘evening types’ this peak occurs later during the day. Other people are ‘intermediate types’. Researchers estimate that 40 percent of adults are either morning or evening types and the remaining 60 percent 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 diametric opposites.

This field of research has a long history. The ground-breaking work recognised by the Nobel Prize was published more than 30 years ago and chronobiology – the underlying field that explains circadian rhythms and differences in chronotypes – has existed for more than half a century. Unfortunately, despite the long existence of this research and its important implications for management scholarship and practice, most companies are still not paying attention to these fundamental human attributes. In our research, we are trying to disseminate the insights of chronobiology and raise awareness among decision makers of the importance of considering employees’ chronotypes in workflow design and planning.

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

On the other hand, evening types are hampered by traditional working hours, which require them to start work early during the day when they are most unproductive, and sends them home in the late afternoon when they are entering the most productive phase of their day.

Awareness of chronotypes can help companies and managers to make best use of their precious human capital by matching workloads to body clocks. It can also help companies select the right candidates for certain tasks and jobs. For example, it makes intuitive sense for a manager of a radio morning show to consider the chronotypes of potential candidates to assess their suitability for a job where getting up at 3am is ubiquitous. However, while companies use all kinds of psychometric assessments to test potential job candidates, chronotypes which can be easily measured through questionnaires are almost never considered.

Chronobiology can also help us compose more effective teams. Consider a group of people who need to perform at their best simultaneously, such as surgical units, emergency responders, sports teams, and orchestras. In this scenario, it is desirable for each member of the team to have a similar chronotype, and their work scheduled to align with their joint daily peaks.

Teams performing tasks that require sustained attention over a long period, such as long-haul flight crews, night shift nurses, and nuclear power plant operators, would benefit from differences in chronotypes to ensure 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 believe it will ultimately lead to widespread change in the organisational practices of companies worldwide.

Stefan Volk

Stefan Volk

Stefan is senior lecturer and co-director of the Body, Heart and Mind in Business Research Group at the University of Sydney Business School. Stefan’s research explores new areas of scientific inquiry that lie dormant between established disciplines of organisation studies and neuroscience.