Most of us have some sort of daily and weekly routine to organize our time, but according to experts, humans follow season rhythms too. Just like other animals, our energy levels and inclinations rise and fall across the year. We'd be happier and more productive, these experts argue, if we worked with these seasonal fluctuations rather than ignoring them.
But according to a fascinating deep dive into how the seasons affect us biologically in Wired recently, we should all lean into these changes even more. In fact, tell your boss (or your bound-to-be-appreciative team): science suggests we'd all be healthier and more productive if we worked a bit less in winter.
It's not just you: humans need to sleep more in wintertime.
We're all familiar with the idea of circadian rhythms, the internal clock that gets you up at 4 a.m. the day after an international flight and starts you yawning at your usual bedtime. But it's not only travel that affects our sense of time. As Laurie Clark reports in the article, light controls our body clock, so when the days get shorter in winter, our rhythms change.
"Our circadian clocks are nudged later during winter, explaining why the urge to stab the snooze button becomes increasingly tough to fight," Clark writes.
Studies of pre-industrial societies that live according to their natural rhythms confirm this. "These communities collectively snoozed for about an hour longer during winter," Clark notes, adding that "given these communities are located in equatorial regions, this effect could be even more pronounced in the northern hemisphere where winters are colder and darker."
Why work should start later in the winter
Which is fascinating, but so what? If you're not lucky enough to set your schedule by the sun and moon, what relevance does this have for you? Currently the answer for most of us is none. Work and school start at the same time in January as in June. But Clark, who digs much deeper into the science in the article, concludes that is just plain dumb.
Few studies have yet been done on the effects of shifting working times in winter, but evidence from related research suggests that syncing up our biological and professional rhythms would yield big benefits.
"People living at the western edges [of time zones where people are most out of sync with the sun] experience higher rates of breast cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease - put down by researchers primarily to the chronic disruption of circadian rhythms that arises from having to wake up in the dark," Clark writes.
The entire country of Spain, which is to the far west of its time zone, "suffers from sleep deprivation - getting an hour less on average than the rest of Europe. This degree of sleep loss has been linked to increased absenteeism, stress, work-related accidents and failure at school in the country," she continues.
Working in opposition to your body clock, in other words, makes you sick, grumpy, and unproductive. Therefore, it's logical to conclude that allowing workers to get up at a more natural time in winter would have the opposite effect. We'd all get more done and feel better if we slept in.
To which many readers are probably responding, 'Hallelujah!' If that's you, then take this recommendation straight to your boss or, if you're the boss, straight to your head of HR (though, as a disclaimer, I doubt you'll get a warm reception if you're in an industry with a big holiday rush).
"Bosses should say 'I don't care when you come to work, come when you have slept to your biological end, because we both will win from this situation'," chronobiologist Till Roenneberg tells Clark. "You will give your best performance. You will have a better time at work because you will feel how efficient you are. And the sick days will be reduced."