What a Way to Make a Living

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Nine to five. The whole western world seems to based around this simple concept. And perhaps for many people this seems to work just fine. If you’re a morning person, the nine to five regime works perfectly with your natural biological rhythms. But what if you’re an evening person? Research has shown a real genetic distinction between morning and evening people, and this distinction affects not just your preferred sleep-wake cycle, but daily body temperature rhythms, and variation in concentration and attention span.

Estimates suggest that just 15% of the population are true morning people, with about 25% being true night owls. The rest of the population is intermediate. If such a small fraction of the population is completely suited to a nine to five schedule, then why has this time frame become the standard? And does this mean that 85% of the population are not working to their full potential, simply because they are being forced into an unnatural work rhythm?

If a real biological difference exists between larks and night owls, a distinction that has a major effect on when people are most focussed and best able to work, then why do we continue to allow ourselves to be forced into a schedule which is suboptimal for the majority of the population? In the western world, night owls are left with two rather unappealing options; work within the expected nine to five schedule, and be inhibited from producing your best work, or accept your biological imperative, work to your own schedule and be viewed by the world as lazy, unenthusiastic and lacking motivation. By contrast, those lucky few who are naturally inclined to work well in the morning are viewed in the professional world as being hard-working, active and successful.

Throughout the working world, with only a few exceptions, larks are rewarded for their natural tendencies, whilst night owls are punished. And yet if the estimates are accurate, the majority of us do not work best with the nine to five schedule, being either true night owls or somewhere in between.

Some night owls manage to find careers that are traditionally more flexible in their work hours, enabling them to excel despite the general bias against their particular way of working. But by doing so, they exclude a range of jobs to which they might be well suited but cannot fit into simply because of their alternative sleep-wake cycle. Surely these professions have something to gain from the night-owls of the world? Increased flexibility could open up an enormous skill set which has been locked up in people labelled as lazy. Not that morning people have nothing to offer, but a world in which both were valued for their differences, would surely be a better one.

As well as the distinction between larks and night owls, there is surprisingly large variation in the amount of sleep each person requires. While standard recommendations for daily sleep range from 6 to 8 hours, research shows that natural variation between people in the quantity of sleep required in order to function well and feel awake during the day ranges from 5 to 11 hours. The western world, with its nine to five, expects 8 hours work, at least, a day. This neatly divides the day into three parts; 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 8 hours personal time (assuming zero commute!). But for people who need 11 hours sleep a day, how should the day be divided? If they continue to work the 8 hour day that is expected of them, they can either cut down their sleep to the ‘normal’ amount, or cut down on their personal time. But personal time is key for maintaining a healthy mind, and long periods of getting very little time to yourself is likely to have negative effects on your work. Equally, people who are working with less than their required amount of sleep are less focussed, slower to react to situations and less capable of making rational decisions. Both options are likely to reduce work performance. So the alternative could be to work fewer hours. Perhaps it is possible to be equally productive in 6 hours as in 8, if you cut down on breaks. Working fewer hours means you need fewer breaks and can cope without a longer break in the middle of the day. However, even if your productivity is high, working fewer hours is perceived as lazy, and people who do this on a regular basis are likely to miss out on promotions, or worse still be fired.

So, what are those of us who don’t fit into the peak of the bell-curve, supposed to do? What place is there in the western world for night owls or heavy sleepers? Since there is science to back up these natural distinctions, isn’t is discrimination that so few work places appreciate the value of heavy-sleeping night owls? Although relatively few of us fall into this extreme category, most of us are also not morning people who only need 5 hours sleep a night. The world would be a better (and perhaps more productive) place, if more people appreciated the natural variation that exists among people in their sleep regimes, and tried to find ways to accommodate this variation in a positive way.

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