The Workplace is Rigged to Favor Morning People

Morning people are deemed to be harder workers, more dedicated, and more productive than those who can’t even make eye contact before 10 a.m. In many cultures, proverbs and adages imply that morning people are somehow moralistically superior, too, not unlike the same bias shown toward organized people.

It’s the same positive but false bias that suggests all those executives, elected officials, and other powerful people who brag about sleeping only a few hours a night are somehow getting more done than the rest of us. In all likelihood, these people are:

  • performing at a much lower standard than they could be if they slept more,
  • extremely rare genetic anomalies whose genes allow them to function well on short sleep cycles [although I should note that genes aren’t the only factor that influence when and how long we need to sleep, as age and environmental factors also play a big role (Roenneberg and Merrow, 2007)],
  • or lying.

I’m serious about the fact that many of them are lying, or at least exaggerating, because research has shown people are terrible at estimating how much they sleep (Vanable et al., 2000).

Early risers and short sleepers are not morally superior. And they are not necessarily more productive than other types of people. But the modern work environment is largely skewed in their favor.

Morning Privilege

In a paper called “Do Morning-Type People Earn More than Evening-Type People?”, researcher Jens Bonke (2012) finds that early birds earn about 4 to 5 percent more on average than night owls. He writes:

The assumption was that morning-type individuals are more likely to work when they are most efficient/productive compared with evening-type individuals, owing to society favoring early over late working hours. The analyses showed that morning relative to evening types earned significantly more, and that morningness benefited men in particular.”

More Job Options

Some of the privileges afforded to morning types are obvious. Standard working hours are still roughly 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Vanable, citing a 2008 paper by Lesnard), which means there are more job opportunities for people who are wide awake and functioning at their best in the morning.

Morning Types Get More Sleep

When the workday starts at 8 or 9 a.m., morning types will always get more sleep than evening types, and therefore be better rested. People who get sufficient sleep are, in general, more productive, have better reflex times, and are mentally sharper and more creative.

Late-night people, however, can’t fall asleep easily at the right hour in order to get sufficient sleep if they need to be up at, say, 7:30 a.m. to get ready for work. It’s not that they couldn’t get into bed earlier. It’s that doing so wouldn’t make them sleepy. That’s what it means to be a late-night type. The body simply will not be tired enough to fall asleep until a late-night (or early morning) hour.

Better for Family Schedules

Additionally for working parents, the hours one can work largely must coincide with school hours as well as times of day when the more affordable option of group childcare, as opposed to private childcare, is available. Even when a late-night type person would like to choose a professional that supports working non-traditional hours, doing so is not an option when kids are in the picture. One last point on this same topic is to consider what happens to families with older children, who don’t require childcare, when a parent takes a job with so-called off hours. It eats into family time, denying one member of the family sufficient time with their children or partner.

Encourages Morning and Early Afternoon Peak Work

The real issue is that morning people are awake, alert, and ready to be productive in the morning and early afternoon, when most businesses require them to be. Morning types have done nothing to earn this advantage, however. As mentioned earlier, genes are one of the driving factors for whether someone is a morning person or evening person.

For late-night types, their bodies tell them they should be sleeping when their bosses require them to be at work. There’s only so much people can do to sway their body clock to work against its nature. A lot of the pat advice about going to bed earlier and observing a consistent bedtime in order to try and become a morning person isn’t necessarily going to have a huge effect, although it may help some people slide their sleep cycles to be a little earlier. Actually, increasing one’s exposure to sunlight seems to help late-night types go to bed about an hour earlier than when their bodies tell them to (Roenneberg, 2012).

There are some professions that favor late-night types, or at least give them a little more freedom to choose their working hours. Many types of self-proprietors and creative freelancers who don’t interface much with clients or the public can work their own schedules. Nurses, EMTs, and many other professions in the emergency medical filed have swing shifts, and overnight workers are typically in demand. There are career options that are better suited for night owls, but of course, they still face the problem of fitting in with the rest of society’s schedule. When will they see their kids? What kind of toll will it take on their sex lives?

What Can You Do?

I don’t know if I have any concrete suggestions for combatting the problem of the workplace favoring morning types. More than anything else, simply knowing that late-night people are at a disadvantage is helpful. It allows those people to have accurate information when they assess their own productivity patterns and shortcomings. Knowing when not to blame yourself for productivity that’s less than optimal is just as important as coming up with creative solutions to boost it.

References

Bonke, J. (2012). Do Morning-Type People Earn More than Evening-Type People? How Chronotypes Influence Income. Annals of Economics and Statistics, No. 105/106: 55-72. DOI: 10.2307/23646456

Roenneberg, T., & Merrow, M. (2007). Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Volume LXXII.

Roenneberg, T. (2012). Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass.

Vanable, P. A., Aikens, J. E., Tadimeti, L., et al. (2000). Sleep Latency and Duration Estimates Among Sleep Disorder Patients: Variability as a Function of Sleep Disorder Diagnosis, Sleep History, and Psychological Characteristics. SLEEP, Vol. 23, No 1.

Image by Aaron Jacobs, CC.

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