Could flexible working hours be the answer to the sleep loss epidemic?

March 11, 2015 by Gemma Paech, The Conversation
Just resting my eyes. Credit: www.shutterstock.com

It is estimated that around 30% of adults do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. To put it another way, their sleep need – the actual amount of sleep an individual needs to feel rested and function at their best – is not being met.

Sleep loss, as anyone who has gone to school or work on fewer hours of than they need can tell you, has a number consequences. Some of them, like increased sleepiness, slower reaction time and poor concentration can impair performance at work. But sleep loss can also influence physical health, leading to health issues such as an increased risk of developing chronic diseases. In fact it affects so many adults that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.

There are a lot of reasons why adults aren't able to get sufficient sleep on a regular basis, some of which we can control and some of which we can't. If insufficient sleep is the result of a medical condition, like or insomnia, treatment can help. But other factors that can lead to , like poor work hours, are harder to control.

We can't all be morning people

Sleep need is highly individual – some people need more sleep and others may need less. And sleep need can also change significantly depending on different circumstances. For instance, when you are ill, your sleep need may be different from when you are healthy. And when you prefer to sleep – our circadian preference, whether we are night owls or early birds – also varies between individuals. It's also strongly influenced by our genes, which means we have little control over whether it's easier to wake up early or stay up late.

So if our sleep needs and circadian preferences tend to vary so much, why does so much of the working world function on 9-5 schedules? For instance, as night owls find it hard to go to bed earlier in the evening, having to wake up early in the morning to go to work can usually mean that their sleep becomes truncated.

Rather than forcing all employees to fit to a "standard" work schedule, flexible work hours may allow individuals to sleep when they need and for as long as they need. This could also help reduce conflicts between work and family and social demands.

Flexible work hours might mean more zzz's

A recent study assessed whether flexible work hours could help employees get more sleep, and of better quality. Researchers used a workplace intervention that allowed employees to choose when and where (for instance, at home, in the office) they worked. The idea was to reduce the conflict between work and personal life, and see how it affected sleep.

Researchers hypothesized that allowing employees to be more flexible with their working schedule would lead to an increase in the amount and quality of sleep they got. Approximately half of the participants were randomly assigned to the intervention while the other half continued to work their normal schedule. Importantly, the total number of hours worked did not differ between the two groups.

Participants wore activity monitors to measure sleep quantity and quality for a total of two weeks – one baseline week at the start of the study and another week a year later. Participants were also interviewed about their sleep quality at baseline, six months and 12 months after the intervention.

Compared to people in the control group, employees in the intervention group increased their sleep by approximately one hour per week (eight minutes more each night) and their perception of sleep sufficiency improved.

It might be a small change, but any improvement in sleep duration and quality, no matter how small, is a move in the right direction towards reducing the sleep deficiency experienced by adults. Over time, this extra hour of sleep each week could lead to positive health affects.

Remember, the quality and quantity of sleep we get depends on a lot of factors. If you face a long commute to work, you may get up earlier than feels comfortable to make it into the office by a certain time. Or you might need to start your day earlier to leave the office in time to pick up kids from school. Here it's useful to look at employees' interviews to gauge the impact of the arrangement. Employees in the intervention reported that having control over their work time allowed them to adjust their sleep which lead them to obtaining (to quote one employee) "more sleep than I've had in years." Subjective measures of sleep – such as how workers feel about how much sleep they get – may not always be as accurate as objective measures of how much sleep they actually get. But comments like this demonstrate how flexible may improve how much people sleep.

While flexible working hours did not increase sleep duration significantly in the group studies, it is possible that any extra time gained by this flexibility was spent on family or social activities. Although activities like going out with friends, or spending time with family can compete for sleep at times, these activities can also help to reduce stress, which in the long-term can improve sleep quantity and quality. Allowing flexible working hours may just be one part of the solution to increase sleep duration in adults.

Explore further: Flexible work schedules improve health, sleep

Related Stories

Depression predicts disturbed sleep among stroke survivors

February 10, 2015

Depression is a powerful predictor of nighttime sleep disturbances among stroke survivors, according to research presented at the Nursing Symposium of the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2015.

Sleep problems may impact bone health

February 3, 2015

The daily rhythm of bone turnover is likely important for normal bone health, and recent research suggests that sleep apnea may be an unrecognized cause of some cases of osteoporosis. Sleep apnea's effects on sleep duration ...

Getting enough sleep really isn't optional

March 4, 2015

The typical adult needs 7 to 7 1/2 hours of sleep each night, while for teenagers and young adults under 25 about 9 to 10 hours of sleep per night is recommended, says Ann Romaker, MD, director of the University of Cincinnati ...

Recommended for you

Losing sleep over climate change

May 26, 2017

Climate change may keep you awake—and not just metaphorically. Nights that are warmer than normal can harm human sleep, researchers show in a new paper, with the poor and elderly most affected. According to their findings, ...

Vitamin D supplements could help pain management

May 23, 2017

Vitamin D supplementation combined with good sleeping habits may help manage pain-related diseases. This paper published in the Journal of Endocrinology, reviews published research on the relationship between vitamin D levels, ...

Recommended daily protein intake too low for the elderly

May 23, 2017

You can find the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) on the nutrition labels of all your processed food. Food manufacturers are obliged to list the nutritional value of their products, and therefore must mention the percent ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Scottingham
5 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2015
When asked during my interview at my current job 'What is your biggest weakness' I said 'waking up when it's dark outside'. They thought I was joking at first...but nope. It throws my whole game off for the rest of the day.

I roll in at 930am now and am easily 5x more productive/efficient than if I had to arrive at 8am. Flexibility to working hours is a big factor to success.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.