The genetic traits of a person’s sleep combine to create a chronotype. An “early chronotype” is essentially a person in the morning, eager to wake up with the sun and go to bed earlier, while a “late chronotype” wants to stay up at night and wake up later. People’s hours of sleep vary greatly: A study found which in the United States range from almost 10 hours. This means that a 9am work start time could be a very different biological reality for some workers. “If you’re an early starter, this could be about the middle of your day,” Vetter says. But for someone else, 9 am could also be their biological night.
For example, a recent study of police officers in Quebec by researchers in the Netherlands and Canada have shown that people with different chronotypes had divergent reactions to morning, evening and night work. Early chronotypes adapted better to the shifts of the day and slept more generally when they had early schedules. In contrast, officers who were late chronotypes lost sleep when they were about to come early, but slept more hours in general than their older colleagues when they had changed later.
Diane Boivin, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University and co-author of the study, says these results show that the chronotype is heavily influenced by genetics. But, she notes, there is a limit to the role that genes can play, even for people who love to burn midnight oil. “Even though you can find individuals who are extreme evening types and even describe themselves as night owls, we are never night owls to the point that we become night animals,” he says. For about 25 percent of the U.S. workforce that does the job – jobs like nursing, manufacturing, or hospitality – pulling the cemetery shift is probably difficult. “It’s a minority of workers who adapt,” Boivin says.
But for jobs that once required a typical 9-to-5, perhaps it’s the job that can be adapted. Boivin says the growth of teleworking, particularly during the pandemic, could help give workers more planning choices. He has already experimented with this. Bovin directs the Center for the Study and Treatment of Circadian Rhythms at Douglas University Institute of Mental Health, and his lab offers flexible hours to students and apprentices. While everyone should be present in the lab from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to encourage teamwork, they are free to enter before or after work. “In the ideal world, we try to put in place a work plan with an individual’s biological model, but it’s not always feasible. It takes time to interact, so you have to set some boundaries,” says Boivin. (Even for their lab that knows the chronotype, planning around sleep cycles is not always possible. Some experiments need to be monitored 24 hours a day, which means night shifts.)
Chris Barnes, a professor at the University of Washington who studies how sleep affects workers, says that for flexible working hours, companies also need to make some cultural changes on how they treat sleep. “There are stereotypes around work programs,” he says. His son research suggests that people who choose to start their day earlier should be seen as more productive and aware of their owl night counterparts. If we don’t change those assumptions, employees won’t be willing to take advantage of solutions that allow them to start working later. And Boivin points out that even in a workplace that allows for bending time, some workers may favor other needs, such as spending time with their families, over their sleep needs.
Barnes suggests that fishing nets or rooms can also help employees rest. “Instead of seeing a dream at work as a joke, we should instead think of it as an investment“He says. Fifteen minutes of downtime could help people be more creative, efficient and productive — but people should be comfortable taking that option. Barnes says company executives should be seen using those bedrooms,” and that they should talk about how important it is to be well rested at work.Instead of sending emails at 2am and waiting for an immediate response — or instead of praising employees who see you in the office very early or who work late-managers had to reiterate that sleep is a priority.