Sleep deprivation associated with working during regular sleeping hours, or working shifts, can be detrimental to awareness and alertness. In turn, working around heavy equipment or behind the wheel can be dangerous if you’re not sufficiently alert. Less clear is whether or how other factors such as work stress and sleep quality interact with shift work to affect cognitive function. In addition, given gender differences in the processes involving sleep, health, and stress, it is also unclear if these factors may affect cognition differently in women and men.

Women: less sleep and more stress

To find out, investigators at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and their Canadian partners examined the relative effects of different variables on cognitive function, including work stress, shift work, and sleep quality. In a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, they reported that women generally had fewer hours of sleep, poorer sleep quality, and greater work-related stress compared to men. However, they found no difference between women and men in the effect of shift work on self-assessed cognitive function. Health and age also played an important role on cognition directly and through sleep. According to the investigators, these findings underscore the need for occupational health and safety programs that address cognitive function among all shift workers by focusing on stress, health, and sleep hygiene.

The study used data from 4,255 respondents to Canada’s National Population Health Survey in 2010. Participants’ average age was 43, and slightly more than half were women. All participants held jobs, with 75% working regular daytime hours and the remainder working either shift hours, rotating day and night hours, or on-call hours.

More information is available:

Mediating Pathways and Gender Differences between Shift Work and Subjective Cognitive Function

NIOSH: Work Schedules -- Shift Work and Long Hours

NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology

Source: NIOSH