Why 9-To-5 Life Is So Hard on Night Owls

It can be difficult for night owls to concentrate at work, especially in the morning. baranq/Shutterstock

For a lot of people, getting up in the morning isn't a lot of fun. While there are plenty of people who happily vault out of bed, ready to tackle the day, "night owls" are at their best in the evening.

People who go to bed late and wake up late have differences in their brain function compared to "morning larks," who enjoy earlier hours. And that means they can be handicapped if they're hemmed in by a traditional 9-to-5 working day, according to new research.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham in the U.K. found that night owls have "lower resting brain connectivity" than morning larks. This is a measure that shows how in sync various regions of the brain are with each other, Live Science explains.

This lower brain connectivity was associated with poorer attention, slower reactions and increased sleepiness throughout a traditional working day.

For their study, researchers studied 38 people who were classified by chronotype — your unique biological rhythm that determines when you prefer to wake up, go to sleep, exercise and more — after filling out a questionnaire. They underwent MRI scans, completed tasks at different times of day, took tests to measure their levels of melatonin and cortisol, and were asked to report on their levels of sleepiness throughout the day.

A mismatch between biological and social time

People who identified as morning larks said they were the least sleepy and had the fastest reaction time during the early morning tests, which was significantly better than the night owls. Night owls, on the other hand, were the least sleepy and had their fastest reaction time at 8 p.m., but it wasn't significantly better than the morning larks. Although this highlights that night owls are at their most disadvantaged in the morning, their brain connectivity is impaired throughout the whole day — from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

"This mismatch between a person's biological time and social time — which most of us have experienced in the form of jet lag — is a common issue for night owls trying to follow a normal working day," said lead researcher Dr. Elise Facer-Childs of the Monash Institute for Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences in Melbourne, Australia, in a statement. "Our study is the first to show a potential intrinsic neuronal mechanism behind why 'night owls' may face cognitive disadvantages when being forced to fit into these constraints."

The study was published in the journal Sleep.

The findings suggest why people who prefer later nights and mornings might have difficulty with traditional work and school hours.

"A huge number of people struggle to deliver their best performance during work or school hours they are not naturally suited to," said Facer-Childs, who led the research while at the University of Birmingham's Centre for Human Brain Health. "There is a critical need to increase our understanding of these issues in order to minimize health risks in society, as well as maximize productivity."

Other differences

woman late-night snacking refrigerator
Night owls may have more health problems because they tend to eat later at night. Aspen Photo/Shutterstock

Being a morning person versus an evening person can have other effects on your body and mind.

An eye-opening study released in 2018 from the U.K. found that people who stay up late have a higher risk of dying that early risers. Similar studies have found that those who prefer late hours are more likely to develop diabetes, muscle loss and metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and abnormal cholesterol levels. A comprehensive review of additional studies also published in 2018 suggested that night owls may have these health problems because they tend to eat later at night, drink more alcohol and caffeine, consume more sugar and eat fewer fruits and vegetables.

An earlier study found that teens who are night owls tend to be more reckless, having less control over "self-regulation" than their peers who are morning people. This lack of control has been associated with a number of negative behaviors such as substance abuse, depression and reckless driving.

A 2016 study found that early risers get better overall grades in school, possibly because tests are often administered first thing in the morning. But it's not all bad news for night owls. That same study found that teens who liked to stay up late performed better on intelligence tests, particularly in areas of inductive reasoning, a skill often considered a good overall measure of later job earnings.