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The Plight of the Night Owl in an Early-Morning Office

Studies show employees work better when they can make their own sleep schedule, but most workplaces aren’t eager to change

The best piece of advice Anthony Bourdain has ever received is “show up on time.”

“Give the people you work with or deal with or have relationships with the respect to show up at the time you said you were going to,” the chef, author, TV host, restaurateur and all-around professional cool dude says in a September 2014 interview with Men’s Journal. “And by that I mean, every day, always and forever. Always be on time. It is a simple demonstration of discipline, good work habits, and most importantly respect for other people. … If you can’t be bothered to show up, why should anybody show up? It’s just the end of the fucking world.”

I only know this because my old boss made a point of sharing this article in a staff email one day. It’s important to note neither he nor Bourdain specified “mornings” in their advice. Bourdain spent his youth toiling in the restaurant industry, working vampire hours, so he’s not advocating being an early bird per se—just punctuality in general. But I couldn’t help but feel my boss’s email was in part directed at me, the one employee routinely late for our daily 9:30 a.m. meeting.

Some of you will probably scoff and say 9:30 a.m. isn’t early. To that, I say it’s all relative. There’s growing scientific evidence that some of us are hardwired to be night owls, and some research that suggest society’s idea of normal working hours is actually at odds with our natural sleeping habits. And with the working world increasingly obsessed with the health benefits of sleep, it raises the question of whether we need to change the working hours to better accommodate people’s sleeping habits, and whether the sleepier among us need to conform.

People younger than 50 shouldn’t be made to work any earlier than 10 a.m., Dr. Paul Kelley, a researcher at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute Oxford University, told The Guardian. Our sleeping rhythm is on a asymmetrical, age-based bell curve, according to Kelley. When we’re 10 years old, our natural wake up time is around 6:30 a.m. This gets later as we undergo puberty, and at 18, our natural wake-up time is 9 a.m. It gradually regresses from there, eventually reaching 6:30 again when we’re about 55.

But we don’t adjust school and office hours accordingly, and the effect is rampant sleep deprivation. The average sleep debt for young adults (ages 24 to 35) is about an hour and a half per night, Kelley says. And it’s even higher for teenagers.

Other research suggests a person’s tendency to go to bed and wake up early or late is hardwired into their DNA. A person’s chronotype — their natural sleep pattern — is often determined bytheir genes, according to Dr. Louis Ptacek, a neurology professor at the University of California–San Francisco.

These findings are troubling, since sleep deprivation makes you a terrible worker. Insufficient sleep hurts your ability to concentrate, learn, reason, remember and problem solve. It also lowers your libido and puts you at increased risk of heart disease and depression.

An obvious solution would be to stagger employees’ office hours based on their sleep habits. Public health researchers in Canada are already advocating for later start times at schools, saying it will increase academic performance. In the office, it could mean a happier, more productive workforce.

But some are wary of instituting such a policy. For one, it sets a bad precedent of holding employees to different accountability standards. And it could make for a less cohesive, less collaborative organization.

“There may be reasons that people want to or need to start later than most, such as childcare or eldercare issues, for example. But it turns out that most people who tell you they work better at night have really created that schedule [for themselves],” says Terry Petracca, MEL’s resident human relations expert. “Those are learned habits, not circadian rhythm issues, and the rest of the world doesn’t need to adapt to that if it’s intrusive on another’s success.”

Someone on a staggered schedule would be isolated from their colleagues, Petracca adds, and interaction between colleagues is vital for personal and organizational success. People who work in proximity to and regularly interact with co-workers make more money and more likely to be promoted. And organizations that encourage worker interactions have higher morale and are more productive.

The business world is gradually coming around to the idea that sacrificing sleep doesn’t make you a better businessperson. “Being tired isn’t a badge of honor,” Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, recently wrote in a blog post on LinkedIn, reacting to some entrepreneurs’ tendency to brag about how little sleep they get. Those people are working longer, but less efficiently than those who get a proper night’s rest.

Media tycoon Arianna Huffington has become a champion of sleep in recent years, saying prioritizing sleep can cause a legitimate revolution. And the finance industry has been rethinking its relationship with sleep after several young workers died on the job in recent years after working without sleep for several days.

But often the answer to our sleep deprivation crisis is to go to bed and wake up earlier—when the science would seem to suggest that we shift our work hours later.