Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Night work, long working hours, psychosocial work stress and cortisol secretion in mid-life: evidence from a British birth cohort
  1. C Thomas1,
  2. C Hertzman2,
  3. C Power1
  1. 1
    MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health, UCL Institute of Child Health, London, UK
  2. 2
    Human Early Learning Partnership, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Claudia Thomas, MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health, UCL Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK; c.thomas{at}


Objectives: To examine the relationships between exposure to workplace factors (night work, extended working hours, psychosocial work stress) and cortisol secretion, and to test whether workplace factors interact, resulting in combined effects.

Methods: Multiple linear and logistic regression was used to test relationships between workplace factors and cortisol secretion in the 1958 British birth cohort at 45 years. Salivary cortisol was measured twice on the same day to capture the post-waking decline, facilitating the analysis of different cortisol patterns: (1) time 1 (T1, 45 minutes post-waking); (2) time 2 (T2, 3 h after T1); (3) average 3 h exposure from T1 to T2 cortisol; and (4) T1 to T2 change. To identify altered diurnal cortisol patterns we calculated: (1) flat T1–T2 change in cortisol; (2) top 5% T1; (3) bottom 5% T1; and (4) T1 hypo-secretion or hyper-secretion. Models were adjusted for socioeconomic position at birth and in adulthood, qualifications, marital status, dependent children, and smoking status.

Results: 25% of men and 8% of women were exposed to >1 workplace factor (night work, extended work hours, job strain). Night work was associated with a 4.28% (95% CI 1.21 to 7.45) increase in average 3 h cortisol secretion independently of job strain or work hours. Night workers not exposed to job strain had elevated T1 cortisol (5.81%, 95% CI 1.61 to 10.19), although for T2 cortisol it was night workers exposed to low job control who had elevated levels (11.72%, 95% CI 4.40 to 19.55). Men (but not women) working >48 h/week had lower average 3 h cortisol secretion (4.55%, 95% CI −8.43 to −0.50). There were no main effects for psychosocial work stress. All associations for T2 and average 3 h cortisol secretion weakened slightly after adjustment for confounding factors, but associations for T1 cortisol were unaffected by adjustment.

Conclusions: Our study suggests that night work in particular is associated with elevated cortisol secretion and that cortisol dysregulation may exist in subgroups with specific combinations of stressors.

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Funding Data collection at 45 years was funded by the Medical Research Council (grant G0000934). CT is funded by a fellowship from the Economic Social Research Council under the “Understanding Population Trends and Processes” initiative (grant RES-163-27-1011). The analyses also benefit from funding from the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), Vancouver, Canada. This work was undertaken at GOSH/UCL Institute of Child Health which received a proportion of funding from the Department of Health’s NIHR Biomedical Research Centres funding scheme. The Centre for Paediatric Epidemiology and Biostatistics also benefits from funding support from the Medical Research Council in its capacity as the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval Ethical approval for the clinical study was given by the South East Multi-Centre Research Ethics Committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.