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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Why Don't We Schedule Work Around Our Sleep Cycles—and Not the Other Way Around?

woman working in the evening

At some point in the near future, I’m going to have a terrible case of insomnia that keeps me alert and awake in the middle of the night. That’s just the way my body seems to work. However, rather than stress about losing my valuable REM sleep, I’m instead going to email my boss to see if she minds if I alter my working hours that day. That’s called taking advantage of flex time.

While it would be a pretty cool thing if we all operated on the same clock and got the prescribed seven to eight hours of sleep each night, that’s just not realistic. However, that doesn’t negate the fact people need adequate amounts of rest to do their jobs well.

A recent Slate article covered how Aetna’s trying to encourage their employees to pay better attention to their own bedtime habits in order to be more productive when at the office. And while I respect the idea behind this initiative to pay staff for sleeping better (defined as seven hours a sleep for 20 nights), it falls short of really responding to the various scheduling needs of people and the evolving workplace culture.

Slate author, L.V. Anderson writes, “If CEOs really want employees to sleep more, they should encourage employees to work reasonable hours and to unplug when they’re not at the office—which will probably lead not only to better sleep but also to employees who are happy to be treated like grown-ups.”

I agree with this, but again, I think it’s not quite chipping away at the problem. While more and more people are getting jobs with flex hours, companies still tend to define that benefit as coming in a little late or leaving a little earlier. That’s silly. If we, as a society wanted it to, it could go so far beyond that. We could be planning our working hours around our own, individual sleep cycles.

Even though I personally don’t thrive in the wee hours of the night, others do. In fact, a former boss would often email me to let me know he’d been up half the night editing and was going to be online intermittently during that workday, but he wasn’t coming in. It was never an issue getting ahold of him, and I respected the fact that instead of tossing and turning for hours and forcing himself to come in all zombie-like, he’d put his wakefulness to work and got stuff done on his own clock—regardless of how atypical it was.

And yet, shouldn’t that be what flex hours are all about? When parents of sick children are spending would-be office hours in doctors’ offices, but have free time later in the evening, who’s to say that’s not taking advantage of a productive period? When someone takes a red eye flight and uses the five or six hours to pump out the presentation deck due by EOD, only to then fall into a deep rest from 9 AM to 2 PM, what’s the problem?

Given the often random nature of our lives—we may like schedules, but that doesn’t mean they’re always feasible. So, instead of rewarding employees for getting a good night’s sleep and working reasonable hours, why not encourage staff to get their work done when it makes sense to them, some guidelines, of course, notwithstanding.

The need to have team members in the office at similar times either for in-person meetings or a general fostering of department camaraderie is a real one. But so is the need to trust employees to do the work they’re assigned in a timely manner with a certain amount of liberty as to when that work gets done.