New Sleep Science Could Change the Working Day Forever

Wednesday 26 September 2018
Sleep science shows that managers should change the working day as some workers are biological night owls
A laptop, notebook and coffee on a bed

There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ working day.

So says Malcolm von Schantz, a professor of chronobiology at the University of Surrey. The scientist has unveiled dramatic new research that suggests sleep deprivation caused by sticking to unnatural working hours can increase the risk of death.

It’s down to what scientists term a ‘chronotype’ – a biological tendency towards either late nights (owl behaviour) or early mornings (lark behaviour) – which is determined by our internal body clocks. Those who are forced into a sleep-activity pattern to which they are not well suited suffer a sleep debt that negatively affects health. People who go to sleep late but are forced to wake early for work are most affected.

In the study, von Schantz and associate professor Kristen Knutson asked 433,268 people to classify themselves as ‘moderate’ or ‘definite’ morning or evening types. Over a six-and-a-half year period, those identifying as definite evening types were ten per cent more likely to die.

“Making an owl live the life of a lark is not only a matter of making their mornings unpleasant: there is well-established evidence that owls suffer far more health problems than larks,” says von Schantz.

This means allowing flexible working hours that reflect employees’ sleeping patterns is a “no-brainer”.

Sleep Affects Productivity

In the short term, different sleep-wake cycles also involve different peaks in alertness that affect productivity. Morning types tend to see a surge in energy first thing, while night produces an energy burst for evening types.

Sleep was one of the 12 productivity hacks for managers identified in this previous article.

“A chronotype is an aspect of human diversity that managers should acknowledge and take advantage of to ensure optimum team performance at all times of day,” says von Schantz. “What manager would not want their team members to work during the hours when they are most able to concentrate?”

That said, a social stigma exists around night-owl behaviour. “I suspect a lot of people would be wary about speaking to their manager about starting and finishing work earlier or later because of their chronotype. In particular, this applies to owls because we tend to equate staying up late with being up to no good, or sleeping in late with being lazy.”

To address this “it is really important to establish an understanding about [chronotypes] simply being a fact of human biology and natural variation between individuals”.

Some researchers have suggested that this diversity is an evolutionary need – vulnerable tribes of early humans would have included a ‘sentinel’ who was awake and alert to threats while others slept.

In the modern workplace, the ideal mix of chronotypes in a team varies according to task. Extended activities such as police surveillance and long-haul flights benefit from crews with different energy peaks, whereas focused group experiences such as medical surgery or music recitals benefit from teams with the same chronotype, as they require direct cooperation, according to a study from the University of Sydney.

Should Sleep Affect Hiring Decisions?

Chronotypes should not dictate a hiring decision, however. “The fact that our body uses light to synchronise our internal clock means that we can use it to give our natural rhythms a kick in the desired direction,” says von Schantz. Evening types should be exposed to light early in the morning to advance their body clock.

Extremes, by their nature, are rare. The majority of the population can be classified as an ‘intermediate chronotype’ with low energy first and last thing. The most productive time to schedule that work meeting? Early afternoon.