Supervisors who identify as ‘morning people’ tend to rate night owls as poor performers, even when they aren’t. HR should lead conversations about chronotypes in the workplace to combat this bias.
‘The early bird catches the worm.’ ‘Lose an hour in the morning and you will be all day hunting for it.’ ‘Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Our obsession with morning culture dates back hundreds of years.
In modern society, it manifests in influencers and successful CEOs touting the value of rising before the sun in order to squeeze in a workout, get ahead on your tasks for the day, soak in a chapter of the latest self-help book and cap things off with an ice-cold shower – all before us mere mortals have even begun to stir from our warm blanket cocoon.
Those of us partial to a sleep-in convince ourselves that if we could just wake up a little bit earlier, we’d be better versions of ourselves: happier, healthier and more productive.
“One of the most frequent questions I get when I give talks is, ‘How can I become a morning person?’, because it’s considered to be productive. But it won’t work for everybody,” says Stefan Volk, Associate Professor and Deputy Head of Discipline International Business at the University of Sydney (USYD), who has studied how circadian rhythms and chronotypes can affect team performance.
“There is a general bias towards morningness in society, and there are historical reasons for that,” he says. “For thousands of years, humans lived in line with the light-dark cycle because we didn’t have electric lights. Work could only be performed during daylight, so sleeping beyond daylight was a waste of previous work time.”
This working rhythm is deeply ingrained in human culture, he says. But we exist in a completely different world now. We have artificial lighting and connective technology that allow us to work outside of daylight hours. So why should our work hours remain stuck in the 16th century?
Understanding chronotypes – are you a lark or an owl?
Every species has a biological clock that helps it align with the 24-hour cycle of the planet, says Volk. This determines when we sleep, eat and perform at our best from a physical, mental and emotional standpoint.
“It regulates body functions, such as your melatonin, secretion, body temperature and so on. It’s a very important process. Chronotypes are a behavioural expression of this biological clock,” he says.
Essentially, it’s an individual’s in-built preference for when they do their best work – when they feel most attentive, alert and able to tend to complex tasks.
“They say an extreme lark and an extreme owl could share a bed but never see each other because they have such opposed rhythms.” – Stefan Volk, Associate Professor, USYD.
“Most people have an intuitive understanding of their chronotype because they know if they’re a morning or evening person,” he says.
You may have heard of the wolf, bear, dolphin chronotypes before, but Volk prefers to think of them as larks (morning) or owls (evening). It doesn’t make sense to put strict guidelines around these different types, says Volk, such as 5am-10am being a morning person and 10am-1pm being an afternoon person. It’s much more fluid than that, he says.
“But it’s true that there’s a big difference between being a lark or an owl. They say an extreme lark and an extreme owl could share a bed but never see each other because they have such opposed rhythms.”
Want to determine if you’re a lark or an owl? This questionnaire, designed by Horne JA and Östberg O, is designed to give you an indication of where you might sit.
Performance at work
Volk, a self-proclaimed evening person, found he was often working late because that’s when he felt he did his best work.
“However, the whole of society was stacked against me because you have to be at work early and there are often responsibilities that require you to be up-and-running in the morning,” he says. “But that was a time where I was not at my best.”
This sparked his interest in researching the ways in which performance is impacted when employees work within and outside of their performance sweet spot, and learning more about the biases that often crop up in favour of early risers.
From a performance and health perspective, you only need to look at the huge body of research into the impacts of shift work to see how working outside of our circadian rhythm can have negative consequences.
“We see more obesity, more depression and a range of negative health outcomes for shift workers.
Evening people’s performance is also often compromised due to what’s called ‘social jetlag’.
“They can’t fall asleep easily because their biological system won’t settle down… so they go to bed later but have to wake up around the same time as morning people. They are consistently sleep-deprived.
“Evening people are much more likely to have all kinds of psychological and negative health impacts, such as depression, obesity and addictions.”
Because most evening people have to live life outside of their natural rhythm, they can also struggle to self-regulate, which means they’re more likely to engage in behaviours such as drinking alcohol, smoking and eating poorly, he adds.
Read HRM’s article on the 7 different types of rest.
“On the other extreme, one of my colleagues did a study in the US when the country shifted to daylight savings, which is essentially just pushing [people’s] rhythm out by one hour. They were able to show that on a national level, there was a spike in workplace injuries… Because they were working out of their rhythm, they were less attentive and less observant.”
Data was analysed from 1983 to 2006, with 576,292 injuries detected in that time frame. The researchers found 3.6 times more injuries on the Mondays following daylight savings, which equated to 2649 work days lost to injury.
Managers favour morning people
Physical and wellbeing injuries aren’t the only things for employers to be concerned about. Morning people are also more likely to benefit from affinity bias.
“Anybody who is up early, who is in the office first, who squeezes in a workout before hitting the office at 6am is considered to be successful and diligent,” says Volk.
This means we often inadvertently discriminate against those who become energised in the afternoon or evening, he says.
“All the important tests in life are usually done in the morning. School tests, driving tests, university tests and job interviews typically happen in the first half of the day when the earlier types can perform better.”
In a work context, this could mean we are consistently underestimating the potential of a large portion of the workforce. Despite the proliferation of morning culture in Australia – think sunrise ocean swims, yoga classes and early morning gym sessions – Volk estimates that almost half of the population are actually afternoon-evening people.
“But we’re sending them home [from work] when they’re just starting to get into their most productive time. We’re not getting the best out of them,” he says.
Not only that, we could be actively preventing them from succeeding. Volk refers to a study which shows that when a manager is a morning person themselves, they are more likely to favour other morning people and think evening types are less diligent and hardworking.
“Even when these team members objectively performed equally, the one who was an [evening person] was more likely to get a poor performance evaluation. This is because of a bias we all have – we think what works best for us will work best for everyone else.”
That boss will see an employee coming in late and assume they’re slacking off, but they don’t necessarily notice that person staying back late, he adds.
“Interestingly, if your boss is an evening person [the research shows] that they don’t discriminate against morning types; they don’t distinguish between the two. That’s because the evening boss can relate to the evening team member, but they have the same admiration for the team member who comes in early… they assume they must be pretty good at their jobs.”
Design work with chronotypes in mind
Volk hopes that alongside conversations about making work schedules more flexible and personalised, employers will also consider individuals’ optimal performance periods.
“The standard 9-5 approach doesn’t suit most employees,” he says.
Instead, we should bake holistic flexibility into the work design of the future – that means going beyond simply allowing employees to work the odd day from home.
You could allow people to determine their own schedules, perhaps with a crossover period of a few hours, sometimes called ‘anchor hours’, for collaborative work. It could also mean embracing asynchronous styles of working and utilising tech platforms to facilitate communication between teams operating on different schedules.
Individuals also need to be encouraged to manage their workflow at times most suitable to their performance peaks, says Volk.
“There’s the so-called ‘morning inbox problem’ where people are getting to work and reading through hundreds of emails from the previous day. For morning types, that’s a waste of their most precious time of the day,” he says.
“Think about when you need to do the hardest work of the day… things like having a difficult conversation with a team member, a performance review, a meeting with a business partner or anything that’s challenging and requires your full mental capacity [should be] planned during your peak hours… Your routine tasks can be performed outside of this time.”
Volk also suggests managers be strategic about how they build teams around people’s unique chronotypes and the work that needs to be done.
“There are tasks that require all people on the team to be at their best – a surgical team, for example. If the surgeons are operating on a patient in the morning, you ideally want them all to be morning types because if one person makes a mistake, that affects the overall outcome.
“Orchestras, sports teams, military combat teams, firefighters – we call them action teams – all have to perform together. The worst team member’s performance determines the team’s overall performance.”
“The standard 9-5 approach doesn’t suit most employees.” – Stefan Volk, Associate Professor, USYD
But there are also examples of when a team’s performance is based on that of the top performer.
“For example, on a long-haul flight from Sydney to Dubai, which is around 15 hours, you have two or three pilots in the cockpit. You don’t want them all to peak at the same time; you don’t want them all attentive and awake the first five hours and then [fading] for the remaining 10 hours. In these cases, you want distributed chronotypes.
“The same goes for nursing, nuclear power plant operators, police surveillance, etc. – anything where it takes one person to pick up on something, such as a pilot who can be attentive enough to alert others of a problem.”
In short, consider if the people in your teams need to be at their best simultaneously or separately.
While there’s plenty of buzz around a potential move to a four-day work week, Volk suggests it might be more impactful to instead think about shorter work days over a five-day week ” because this way we tap into everyone’s peak period.”
Volk says there are, of course, limitations to the extent to which work can be designed around people’s chronotypes and preferences. He’s not suggesting you radically change your business’s opening hours to accommodate for the night owls among your employee cohort.
“But I think there is scope to explore how to get the best performance out of employees and also make them feel appreciated.
“We accommodate people in so many ways at work, but this is something we haven’t considered. It’s like ergonomics in an office where we set up people’s chairs and tables so they don’t develop health issues and can work comfortably and productively. This is the same thing.”
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