The Pandemic Changed Sleep Habits. Maybe That’s a Good Thing

A person’s genetic sleep traits combine to create a chronotype. An “early chronotype” is essentially a morning person, eager to wake up with the sun and head to bed early, while a “late chronotype” wants to stay up into the night and wake up later. People’s sleep hours range widely: One study found that in the United States they vary by nearly 10 hours. That means that a 9 am work start time could be a very different biological reality for some workers. “If you’re an early chronotype, this could be towards the middle of your day,” says Vetter. But for someone else, 9 am could still be their biological night.

For example, a recent study of police officers in Quebec by researchers in the Netherlands and Canada showed that people with different chronotypes had divergent reactions to working morning, evening, and overnight shifts. Early chronotypes adapted better to day shifts and slept more overall when they had early schedules. Conversely, officers who were late chronotypes lost sleep when they had to come in 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 a coauthor on the study, says these findings show that one’s chronotype is heavily influenced by genetics. But, she points out, there’s a limit to the role that genes can play, even for people who love to burn the midnight oil. “Even though you can find individuals who are extreme evening types and even describe themselves as night owls, we’re never night owls to the point that we become nocturnal animals,” she says. For the roughly 25 percent of the US workforce that does shift work—jobs like nursing, manufacturing, or hospitality—pulling the graveyard shift is likely to be tough. “It’s a minority of workers who do adapt,” says Boivin.

But for jobs that once required a more typical 9-to-5, maybe it’s the workplace that can adapt. Boivin says that the growth of teleworking, especially during the pandemic, could help give workers more scheduling choices. She’s already experimenting with this. Bovin directs the Centre for Study and Treatment of Circadian Rhythms at Douglas Mental Health University Institute, and her lab offers flexible hours to students and trainees. While everyone has to be present in the lab from 10 am to 4 pm to encourage teamwork, they are free to come in earlier or to work later. “In the ideal world, we would try to match a work schedule to an individual’s biological pattern, but it’s not always feasible. There needs to be times of interaction, so you have to set some boundaries,” Boivin says. (Even for her chronotype-aware laboratory, scheduling around sleep cycles isn’t 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 in order for flex-time schedules to work, companies also need to make some cultural changes about how they treat sleep. “There are stereotypes around work schedules,” he says. His research suggests that people who choose to start their day earlier are seen as more productive and conscientious than their night-owl counterparts. If we don’t change those assumptions, employees won’t be willing to take advantage of solutions that allow them to start work later. And Boivin points out that even in a workplace that allows flex-time, some workers may favor other exigencies, like time with their families, over their sleep needs.

Barnes suggests that nap pods or rooms could also help employees rest. “Rather than seeing a nap at work as loafing, 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 have to be comfortable with taking that option. Barnes says company leaders should be seen using those nap rooms, and they should talk about how important it is to be well rested at work. Instead of sending emails at 2 am 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.

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