Losing sleep during the pandemic? Work flexibility can be a health boon for night owls


Many so-called night people feel that when it comes to societal expectations of the start of the working day, they have drawn the short straw.

Research shows that “night owls” are hardwired to sleep later, but 9-to-5 work schedules force them to battle their physiology and wake up early. Research has also shown that conventional schedules make them vulnerable to physical stress and mental health problems.

“It’s harder for night owls to function in the world because they’re out of sync with the conventional schedule,” said Kelly Baron, an associate professor at the University of Utah who studies sleep health and clinically treats patients with insomnia. She noted that lack of sleep is also a factor in worker absenteeism and use of sick leave. “We would get better performance from employees if they were allowed to work at their best working hours.”

His research found that staying out late can cause even healthy night owls to be prone to bad habits like eating fast food, not exercising, and socializing less.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many people to work from home, has allowed greater flexibility in work schedules, prompting sleep scientists to rethink assumptions about sleep and how to assess sleep. patients.

The pandemic “was an international experiment to understand how sleep changes when working hours and work environments change,” Baron said.

Italian researchers are among those looking into this question. In a recent study, they found that many Italians who don’t typically fit into a traditional daytime schedule thrive and improve in health when pandemic remote working conditions allow them to work later.

Federico Salfi, PhD student at the University of L’Aquila and self-proclaimed night owl, joined colleagues in late 2020 examine how the work-from-home trend has influenced the sleeping habits of Italians. Through social media, they identified 875 people who represented in-office and remote workers. They then used online questionnaires to uncover the impacts of remote work on sleep health. The results: The pandemic’s work-from-home flexibility helped participants better align their work and sleep schedules — many for the first time.

Specifically, the researchers found evidence that night-type people slept better and longer when working from home, with a corresponding decrease in symptoms of depression and insomnia.

They also pointed to an important theme that echoes other studies: People who fall into the night owl category regularly sleep less than early risers. On his podcast, Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California-Berkeley and author of “Why We Sleep,” said that was the difference of 6.6 hours per night versus more than 7 hours per night, which leads night owls to accumulate a chronic sleep debt. (The study is available as a preprint and has not yet been peer-reviewed.)

So why don’t these people go to bed earlier? The answer is complicated.

Feeling drowsy requires a biochemical cascade of events to kick in, and when is determined by a person’s chronotype. A chronotype is a internal “biological clock” which determines when people feel awake or tired during a 24-hour period. Cycles are genetically set, with about half of people falling into the mid-range – meaning they neither wake up at dawn nor fall asleep after midnight – and the rest split evenly as morning larks or night owls.

In prehistoric times, a mix of incompatible bedtimes served an evolutionary purpose. Evening guys would watch over morning guys while they sleep, and vice versa. Modern society, however, rewards early risers while stigmatizing those who burn the midnight oil, said Brant Hasler, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the university’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Science. “We serve one part of our population at the expense of another.”

Walker described specific health consequences in his podcast. Night-time types are 30% more likely than early risers to develop hypertension, which can lead to strokes or heart attacks, and 1.6 times more likely to have type 2 diabetes, as sleep affects blood sugar regulation. They are also two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression and twice as likely to use antidepressants.

A study published in February also found that evening people who slept more during the pandemic still had noticeably worse mental health than morning larks.

Neither Walker nor Hasler were involved in the Italian study.

Still, some experts noted that the Italian study had limitations.

“I couldn’t find clearly included in the study: were people still on these schedules? [Or did they change after the pandemic?] Because it’s something that really matters,” said Stijn Massar, senior researcher at the National University of Singapore. Additionally, since COVID has drastically affected nearly every aspect of life, pandemic-era sleep data may be clouded by the many lifestyle changes people have had to endure.

Plus, sleep scientists still debate whether it’s always healthier for someone to sleep in sync with their chronotype.

This is to prioritize individual schedules over community schedules. But “sleep is one of life’s great mysteries,” Massar said. “This is all somewhat speculative,” with each new study offering insight into the bigger picture.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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