The genetic traits of a person’s sleep are combined to create a chronotype. The “early chronotype” is basically a morning person, eager to wake up with the sun and go to bed early, while the “late chronotype” wants to stay awake at night and wake up later. People’s sleep hours range widely: One study was found to differ in the United States by almost 10 hours. This means that the start time of work at 9 am could be a completely different biological reality for some workers. “If you’re an early chronotype, this could be the middle of your day,” says Vetter. But for someone else, 9 a.m. could still be their biological night.
For example, a a recent study by police officers in Quebec, researchers from the Netherlands and Canada showed that people with different chronotypes had different reactions to work shifts in the morning, evening and overnight. Early chronotypes adapted better to daily shifts and slept more fully when they had an early schedule. In contrast, police officers who were late with chronotypes lost sleep when they had to arrive early, but slept more hours overall than their early bird colleagues when they had later shifts.
Diane Boivin, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University and co-author of the study, says that these findings show that someone’s chronotype is greatly influenced by genetics. But, she points out, there is a limit to the role that genes can play, even for people who like to burn midnight oil. “While you can find individuals who are extreme evening types and even describe themselves as night owls, we are never night owls to the point of becoming nocturnal animals,” she says. For approximately 25 percent of the U.S. workforce doing shift work — jobs like nursing, manufacturing, or catering — pulling a shift at a cemetery is likely to be difficult. “A minority of workers are adjusting,” says Boivin.
But for jobs that once needed a more typical 9 to 5, maybe the workplace can be customized. Boivin says the growth of telework, especially during a pandemic, could help workers be given more choices to deploy. She is already experimenting with this. Bovin runs the Center for the Study and Treatment of Circadian Rhythms at Douglas University Mental Health, and her lab offers flexible working hours to students and trainees. Although everyone must be present in the lab from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to encourage teamwork, they are free to come earlier or work later. “In an ideal world, we would try to adapt the work schedule to the biological pattern of the individual, but this is not always feasible. It takes time to interact, so you have to set some boundaries, ”says Boivin. (Even for her chronotype-aware lab, scheduling a sleep cycle is not always possible. Some experiments need to be monitored 24 hours a day, meaning night shifts.)
Chris Barnes, a professor at the University of Washington who studies how sleep affects workers, says companies need to make some cultural changes in the way they relate to sleep for flexible time schedules to work. “There are stereotypes about work schedules,” he says. His research suggests to see people who decide to start the day earlier more productive and conscientious than their night owl counterparts. If we do not change these assumptions, employees will not 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 flexible time, some workers may favor other needs, such as time with family, over sleep needs.
Barnes suggests that pods or rooms could also help employees relax. “Instead of taking a nap at work as a curse, we should do it understand it as an investment“He says. Fifteen minutes of downtime could help people be more creative, efficient and productive – but people need to accept that opportunity. Barnes says company leaders need to see how they use those bedrooms and talk about how important it is to rest well Instead of sending an email at 2 a.m. and expecting an immediate response – or instead of praising employees who are seen in the office very early or working late – managers should reiterate that sleep is a priority.