Shift Work and Cognitive Flexibility: Decomposing Task Performance

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Journal of biological rhythms


Deficits in cognitive functioning associated with shift work are particularly relevant to occupational performance; however, few studies have examined how cognitive functioning is associated with specific components of shift work. This observational study examined how circadian phase, nocturnal sleepiness, and daytime insomnia in a sample of shift workers ( N = 30) were associated with cognitive flexibility during the night shift. Cognitive flexibility was measured using a computerized task-switching paradigm, which produces 2 indexes of flexibility: switch cost and set inhibition. Switch cost represents the additional cognitive effort required in switching to a different task and can impact performance when multitasking is involved. Set inhibition is the efficiency in returning to previously completed tasks and represents the degree of cognitive perseveration, which can lead to reduced accuracy. Circadian phase was measured via melatonin assays, nocturnal sleepiness was assessed using the Multiple Sleep Latency Test, and daytime insomnia was assessed using the Insomnia Severity Index. Results indicated that those with an earlier circadian phase, insomnia, and sleepiness exhibited reduced cognitive flexibility; however, specific components of cognitive flexibility were differentially associated with circadian phase, insomnia, and sleepiness. Individuals with an earlier circadian phase (thus more misaligned to the night shift) exhibited larger switch costs, which was also associated with reduced task efficiency. Shift workers with more daytime insomnia demonstrated difficulties with cognitive inhibition, whereas nocturnal sleepiness was associated with difficulties in reactivating previous tasks. Deficits in set inhibition were also related to reduced accuracy and increased perseverative errors. Together, this study indicates that task performance deficits in shift work are complex and are variably impacted by different mechanisms. Future research may examine phenotypic differences in shift work and the associated consequences. Results also suggest that fatigue risk management strategies may benefit from increased scope and specificity in assessment of sleep, sleepiness, and circadian rhythms in shift workers.

Medical Subject Headings

Adult; Circadian Rhythm; Cognition; Female; Humans; Light; Male; Middle Aged; Risk Management; Shift Work Schedule; Sleep; Sleep Disorders, Circadian Rhythm; Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders; Sleep Stages; Task Performance and Analysis; Work Schedule Tolerance; Young Adult

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