Why night owls shouldn’t start work at 9 a.m.
If you work a 9 to 5 and often have trouble getting out of bed in the morning or start to falter in the late afternoon, the person to blame is Henry Ford. The founder of the Ford Motor Company began the practice in the early 1920s to have the production lines that filled his factories turn out vehicle after vehicle as efficiently as possible.
It turned out to be frighteningly effective and ushered in a new era of mass production that was copied around the world and is still called Fordism today. But today, 100 years later, the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work week seems increasingly in need of a serious overhaul.
The increase in working from home during the COVID pandemic has led many to question the rigidity of the workweek, with many arguing that introducing flexible hours would create a happier and more productive workforce.
This is especially true when you consider our chronotypes – the term used to describe our natural inclination to be alert and energetic or lethargic and sleepy at any given time of day. On one side of the spectrum are owls, which naturally prefer to rise late and stay up late, and on the other are larks, which naturally rise early and go to bed early.
“The factors that influence the chronotype are mainly genetic. We know we get up and go to bed at different times. And if we look at it biologically, we know that people have different circadian rhythms, which means that hormones, for example, are released at different times and body temperature changes at different times,” says Dr. Anita Lenneis, chronotype researcher. based at the University of Warwick.
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One of the hormones that plays a major role in our sleep and wake cycles is melatonin.
“Melatonin is influenced by daylight, so when it gets dark, your melatonin level starts to rise and you start to feel more tired. But it’s not just about light. Even though people live in caves or if you put them in labs for days, their melatonin levels are still following a circadian rhythm,” says Lenneis.
“Melatonin is perhaps the best marker of the circadian rhythm – particularly the onset of melatonin in the dark, which is the time of day when melatonin is released in the evening. But obviously that’s sometimes a little intrusive and very expensive to study all these biological markers.
Most studies use a much simpler method of determining a person’s chronotype that can be tracked by anyone, Lenneis says.
“We have questionnaires to find out what type you are. If you sleep on a free day, you can do a calculation using the time you fall asleep plus your sleep duration divided by two. So if you go to bed at midnight, then you sleep eight hours, that would be four.
“If you have a low score, it means you are a very precocious person. And if you have a high score, then you are a very late person. The chronotype is normally distributed, which means that very few people are very early and very few people are very late.
Although the concept of chronotypes has been around for a long time, exactly why our sleep patterns differ so widely is still a mystery.
“There is an evolutionary idea. I don’t know if it’s true, but there are people who say that when people lived in caves, they had to be alert, so some people had to be awake all the time,” says Lenneis. “If some people are sleeping while others are awake, everyone is safe. You can’t be eaten by a bear.
This obviously would have been great for a tribe of hunter-gatherers who could sleep at different times of their choosing, but it’s clearly not so great for a workforce that has to fit into a 9 pattern to 5. And more than just causing sluggishness and fatigue, living on a schedule that doesn’t fit our chronotype can have serious consequences for our mental health, especially for night owls.
“Basically, any type of psychological disorder is related to later chronotypes. We have personality disorders, insomnia, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, sleep apnea, pretty much anything,” says Lenneis. .
“Performance too, especially in children. We know that children do better in school if they have earlier chronotypes. Your performance depends on when you are most alert – that’s when you normally perform best. So in schools, for example, if you’re very tired in the evening, you just can’t perform as well.
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Although our chronotypes shift more towards the lark than the owl as we age, it is very difficult to train yourself to change your sleep schedule.
“In one of my studies, I found that self-discipline was tied to morning people and that’s something you can change. So if you normally go to bed at three o’clock, maybe you could be more disciplined and try changing up your schedule a bit. I think you could probably work with light as well,” says Lenneis. “So maybe you turn off the light earlier, maybe you’ll tire more easily, but obviously if that’s your pace, it’s going to be very difficult to change.”
Most people who attempt to stick to a schedule that doesn’t fit their chronotype during the week often end up backtracking during the weekend – a phenomenon known as social jet lag. So maybe the easy answer is to give everyone more freedom to choose their working hours.
“I think flexible working hours would be helpful. Definitively. Because it’s as if your biological rhythm is not aligned with your social clock. The extreme example would be in people who work shifts because their social and biological clocks don’t match at all,” says Lenneis.
“Basically, if your biological clocks and your social clocks don’t match, you experience a kind of social jet lag. So it’s like a mild but chronic form of jet lag. And yeah, so it basically works that if you’re a late person, go to bed at three, and still have to wake up early the next day, then you’re just not getting enough sleep. You accumulate a sleep debt and then you have to compensate for it on the weekend.
About our expert, Dr Anita Lenneis
Anita is a researcher based in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick. She currently studying chronotypes.
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