If left to his own devices, my husband would stay up until around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. and get up around 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. He's a natural late riser, among the estimated 40 percent of the population who don't fit the common sleep-rise pattern of around 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. But like so many others with an atypical circadian rhythm, he can't exactly stroll into work when most everybody else is heading to lunch.

Could that equate to workplace discrimination?

That's the question Brian Resnick explores in a recent article for Vox. Resnick explains that circadian traits are genetic to a large degree (up to 50 percent hereditary) and, subsequently, tougher than overdone jerky to shift. He also shares several stories of late risers who have felt stigmatized and discriminated against for their sleep patterns. These individuals have turned to substances like caffeine and alcohol to try to adapt, weren't taken seriously by doctors and even lost employment because they couldn't get themselves going for work earlier.

A look at sleep under the lens of ADA and EEOC

Resnick's question is particularly interesting in the context of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This act defines a person with a disability as "a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability." Individuals with "abnormal" chronobiological patterns arguably could fit this definition, as their sleep patterns are genetic and can make it legitimately difficult to function well cognitively under normal social expectations.

Now, entertaining the concept of labeling certain sleep patterns as "disabilities", let's look at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's procedures for reasonable accommodations for disabilities. EEOC offers accommodations

  • when you need the accommodation to have an equal chance to compete for a job
  • when you need the accommodation to perform your job or access the office
  • when you need the accommodation to apply for a job, perform a job or have equal access to the workplace or benefits

And what's listed as a perfectly reasonable accommodation?

Modifying work schedules or supervisory methods, as well as altering how or when job duties are performed.

Interestingly, working adults who get up earlier or later than the majority of others already might have an example of organizations making accommodations. Schools have studied the sleep patterns of teens, and in recognition that these young people biologically are tuned to wake up later for a few years, are shifting busing and start times. If heeding circadian patterns is good for their health and mental performance, wouldn't it stand to reason that adults could benefit from the practice, too? Accepting that the brain needs adequate rest to function at any age, why do teens get "let's help them out" and employees get "just grin and bear it because this is what adulting means"? Why do we continue to see those who don't fit the mold as unwilling to work at the "right" time, rather than unable?

Three big factors that might have an influence for positive change

First, the trend among younger workers, especially millennials, is for more flexible schedules. This is partly ideological, as they simply believe that productivity should be measured more in output than in hours worked. But it's also logistical, as younger workers have increased home and work demands to balance. As this demand grows, companies are having to bend the traditional hours to attract and retain workers.

Secondly, there's the gig economy. Intuit predicts that roughly 43 percent of the workforce will be working these types of "on demand" jobs by 2020. These types of jobs let you work whenever and wherever you want.

Worker demands and the gig economy both are forcing businesses to reevaluate when people "have" to work. Tie in that technology now allows global operations on a 24/7 basis and there's even less reason not to accommodate and let people listen to their body clocks.

But what do we do in the transition?

While the gig economy, worker demands and technology are giving early or late risers some better options, there still are millions of individuals who are forced to work in positions their bodies struggle with. This includes individuals who would benefit from milder accommodations, such as a schedule shift of just one hour. (I can't help but add here that it would be absolute bliss if I could get up at 6:00 a.m. instead of 5:00 a.m....please. Pretty puh-lease.) These individuals need a sense of direction and clarity about how to advocate for themselves and what they might be able to do legally to support their careers. In this context, the very least we can do in this moment, regardless of current policy, is acknowledge that these workers, particularly late risers, don't feel equal. Empathy fosters communication, and if we can have good discussions about the problem, we're much more likely to find a viable solution.  

Published on: Mar 6, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.