Science shows we're each born with a pre-programmed "chronotype" that naturally regulates when we feel sleepy and alert. Yes, behaviors like skipping that afternoon coffee and keeping to a strict schedule can help nudge natural night owls towards earlier bed and wake up times, but fundamentally when you perform best is hard-wired into your genes.
But while your daily rhythms are relatively fixed, chances are excellent your boss is even less flexible. No matter how miserable it is for you to hear that early morning alarm every day, work still starts promptly at nine a.m. and your kids' school bus pulls up at seven.
Recent research has looked into the health consequences of that mismatch, tracking a group of study subjects for more than six years. The findings are grim. Night owls face a ten percent higher risk of early death than larks, the biologists behind the study reported on The Conversation recently.
The costs of living in a mismatched world
Why is that? Science hasn't 100 percent nailed down the answer, admit neurologist Kristen Knutson and chronobiologist Malcolm von Schantz in their write-up of their findings. Lifestyle factors, such as night owls possibly drinking more or suffering more from loneliness, might contribute. But while we can't entirely explain the relatively worse fate of night owls, science is pretty sure of one big contributing factor: the world is mean to them.
"We suspect that 'misalignment' between the timing of our internal clock and the timing of our behaviors could be detrimental over the long run," claim the scientists. "A night owl trying to live in a morning lark world will struggle." (If you're skeptical, note that even just putting the clocks ahead for daylight savings time leads to a measurable uptick in deaths.)
So what can be done about the problem? Knutson and von Schultz offer night owls tips to help them to fit in better with a world dominated by larks, such as gradually inching their sleep times earlier and avoiding screens before bed. But it's important to note this isn't a case of right vs. wrong, but instead a simple misalignment of preferences. There's no reason that night owls need to do all the compromising here.
Late risers can't expect their local school district to change school start times so they can sleep in (though experts insist there are other excellent reasons for changing them for teens), but at many jobs, at least, a nine a.m. or earlier start time is more of a convention than an unbendable necessity.
Bosses who irrationally insist on a strict schedule aren't just helping to hasten the demise of some of their employees, they're also failing to get the best work out of their people. If working 10:30-6:30 will make your star designer or best analyst markedly better at his or her job, forcing him or her show up at nine is essentially throwing productivity (and therefore money) out the window.
Knutson and von Schultz stress that "flexibility in work hours would help to improve the health of night owls." It would also improve the bottom line of their bosses.