Waking Up is Not a Competition

Shadows. By Stuart Murray
Photo by author.

Do you have a strange pang of guilt about your wake-up time?  You shouldn’t.  People have varied natural wake-up times, and the “best” time to wake up appears to be extremely personal.

One of the more important workplace numbers – and one that is rarely discussed – is the normal hours of work and the degree to which hours are flexible.  Work hours are a big deal because people need to make a lot of trade-offs between family size, housing, commuting distance, and family care obligations.  In an office environment, while it’s good to have a general sense of when we want people around for meetings, it also makes sense to ensure peoples’ work and home lives to be compatible.

One item that complicates normal work hours is peoples’ sleep times.  While a lot of people have a typical sleep pattern of 11pm-7am, plenty of people tend to be early risers or night owls.  The variety of sleep times are linked to something called chronotype.  There are many news articles implying that waking early is virtuous, but there is little discussion of whether we can choose to change our sleep patterns.  My reading of the research shows mixed results amongst those attempting to change their wake time.

There are several genetic variables that affect chronotype.  The Wikipedia entry on the topic notes that “there are 22 genetic variants associated with chronotype.”  The sleep cycle is related to our levels of melatonin and our variations in body temperature.  Our age has a major impact on sleep patterns.  Children and those aged 40-60 are more likely to be early risers, while teens and young adults are more likely to be night owls.

In an HBR article from 2010, biology professor Christoph Randler was interviewed about an article he published on sleep cycles.  He cited one study that found that “…about half of school pupils were able to shift their daily sleep-wake schedules by one hour. But significant change can be a challenge. About 50% of a person’s chronotype is due to genetics.”

Looking into people’s personal experiences in attempting to wake up earlier, they will often emphasize discipline and routine in waking up properly.  Other articles identify wake-up technologies that oblige you get out of bed promptly.  The best overview that I could find comes from lifehacker.org, which has a great info-graphic on why and how to become an early riser.

Dr. Randler notes that evening people tend to be smarter, more creative, have a better sense of humor, and be more outgoing.  By contrast, morning people “hold the important cards” as they get better grades and the opportunities that arise from them.  Morning people anticipate problems and minimize them, and are more proactive.  “A number of studies have linked this trait, proactivity, with better job performance, greater career success, and higher wages.”

Team Productivity and Genetic Diversity

What is notable is that early risers have the traits that are most beneficial for their personal effectiveness and their personal career success.  This is troublesome.  You see, if early risers are more likely to get into positions of power and status they are also more likely to end up with a captive audience through which they can imply that others should be more like them.  This may be a factor in the early-rising hype.

I would assert that an employer must always look beyond individual performance and pay close attention to teamwork.  It is common for some behaviours to cause one person get ahead to the detriment of the team, and part of good management is to nip this in the bud and put the team first.  If there is a solid talent pool of night owls who bring smarts and creativity which is historically less recognized in grades or career advancement, their contribution might be strong and also under-appreciated.  We must consider what is best for the entire workplace, and cultivate the best contributions from all sleep types.

If the purpose of our diversity and employment-equity efforts is to get the best out of all people regardless of how they were born, perhaps we should be open-minded about sleep patterns.  The correct moral standard should be inclusiveness and team effectiveness.

Dr. Randler, who is from Germany, is quick to acknowledge that our bias towards early-rising is more circumstantial than fact-based:

“Positive attitudes toward morningness are deeply ingrained. In Germany, for example, Prussian and Calvinist beliefs about the value of rising early are still pervasive. Throughout the world, people who sleep late are too often assumed to be lazy. The result is that the vast majority of school and work schedules are tailored to morning types. Few people are even aware that morningness and eveningness have a powerful biological component.”

We can’t choose to be a morning type any more than we can choose to be tall, male, white, a baby boomer, or someone with executive-face.  And for that matter, we can’t choose to be Prussian.  Under what circumstances would we oblige everyone to fit a single standard of excellence that elevates one genetic type to be superior to the rest?  Didn’t we sort this out already?

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