Are Night Owls Better Performers?

November 8, 2009 by Ken Nowack

“I’m not asleep… but that doesn’t mean I’m awake”



We know that sleep problems create problems for both employees and organizations.  For individuals even a few hours less sleep than you normally require will contribute to impairment in memory, psychomotor functioning, mood and susceptibility to getting a cold.  For organizations, it affects the bottom line in terms of accidents, absenteeism, presenteeism (being there in body only) and health care costs.

Are you a “night owl” with your greatest alertness, ability to concentrate and performance late at night or a “lark” that has a preference for getting up early to accomplish as much as possible?

You should know that sleep-wake cycles are guided by two basic principles: They are linked to the light-dark cycle of the 24-day (circadian rhythms) and are aimed at helping us get an average number of hours of sleep each night (sleep homeostasis). Early and late risers have different patterns of hormone production at different times of the day and even body temperature (also a circadian rhythm which peaks in morning people early than night people corresponding to performance). 

We also know that being a “night owl” or “lark” is genetically determined with early risers inheriting two long versions of a particular gene known as PER3.  Could this innocuous DNA sequence be associated with “the early bird getting the worm” more frequently?

survey by Gallup suggests that 55% of employees report they are at their personal best of performing in the morning, 15% in the afternoon, 20% in the evening (up until 11pm) and 5% very late at night.  In their survey, 70% of employees who earn at least $75,000 reported they do their best work in the morning compared to 40% who make under $30,000 (Results were based on telephone interviews with 1,019 adults in October 2007).

However, other research is a bit less convincing.  In one study, 356 people (29%) were defined as larks (to bed before 11pm and up before 8 am) and 318 (26%) were defined as owls (to bed at or after 11pm and up at or after 8 am). There was no indication that larks were richer than those with other sleeping patterns. On the contrary, owls had the largest mean income. There was also no evidence that larks were superior to those with other sleeping patterns with regard to their cognitive performance or their state of health1.

Whether you are a “night owl” or “lark” new evidence is mounting that it is best to do your best to leverage your genetic strengths and try to avoid too much shifting of our sleep clock.

All of this research also assumes employees can choose to sleep in and get up as late as their body clocks let them each day.  In reality, we all affected by our work schedule and family situations that can create havoc with our biological sleep rhythms. In some industries, having three shifts are essential to providing basic services such as health care, transportation, and hospitality to name just a few. 

In an announcement published in the journal Lancet Oncology, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) will label shift work as a “probable cause” of cancer.  Shiftwork directly affects the production of hormones such as melatonin, which in turn plays an important role in our immune system making us more vulnerable to cancers.

Raising a new guide dog puppy has really shifted my own sleep clock.  I’m in need of another nap….Be well….


[tags]insomnia, sleep, fatigue, depression, sleep disorders, fatigue countermeasures, REM, NREM, circadian rhythms, stress, health, job burnout, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]

  1. Gale, C. & Martyn, C. (1998).  Larks and owls and health, wealth and wisdom.  British Medical Journal. December 19, 317, 1675-1677 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

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