Sleep in the Workplace

Sleep is one of the fundamental biological processes that we need to in order to live a healthy life. According to the NHS, most adults require around 8 hours sleep, with significant variation above and below this. Sleep deprivation is related to a number of severe health issues, including weight gain, immunodeficiency, increase in stress, depression and death. Human sleep is mainly regulated by three clocks that work together in various levels of synchrony to maintain our daily pattern of sleeping and waking. These are the social, biological and solar clocks. The internal biological clock also varies between individuals; this variance is known as chronotype. People are often considered to be either a “morning lark” or a “night owl” and these terms reflect morning-type and evening-type chronotypes respectively. This means that people will naturally be most active during slightly different times of day. Morning-types tend to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier, whereas the inverse is true of evening types. Within the confines of the solar clock, this means that individuals have slightly different periods of peak alertness.

Working times have traditionally coalesced into daylight hours –a typical working day being from 0900-1700. This is something of a throwback to when a lot of work required natural light and artificial lighting would have been too expensive to provide economically. In the modern workplace, artificial lighting, connectivity and digital working render this idea obsolete. Many people however, are still forced to start work at 0900, a time at which they may naturally be asleep. People with this chronotype mismatch have more sleep disturbances and sleep for less time than people without the mismatch (this has been found for both morning-types working at night and evening types working during the day). This lack of sleep in turn causes declines in productivity, poor decision making and a range of health problems such as those mentioned above. This prompts the question of why people are forced in to working at specific times which may not only get them at their worst, but also cause them physical and mental health problems and contribute to a range of destructive lifestyle behaviours.

This report recommends a solution to this problem: temporally flexible working. Many companies already allow employees to work from multiple locations, away from the direct oversight of their seniors. This has resulted in a number of benefits in terms of productivity, decreased stress and better engagement with work. If employees are permitted to work at whatever times are aligned with their circadian rhythm, companies could experience similar gains, reversing the deleterious effects modern working have on sleep. This would be initially very simple to implement and can also be experimentally determined as outlined in this article. There is huge potential to increase the health and productivity of workers by taking greater account of how sleep works and particularly how it intersects with the workplace.

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