“Night Owls,” Virtue and Productivity

As I sit here each morning waiting for the sun to come up over the Monterey Bay, I am often amazed at how someone who used to really, really struggle to make it to work by 10:30 AM has somehow become a Morning Person. I was once awakened at noon to be told my official, ceremonial photo with my boss the governor would be taken in five minutes. The new-wave music era in Atlanta was perfect for me, since bands rarely started sets before midnight, and admission was often free after 2:00! (It may have been genetic, since my father, another late riser, once, as a gag, was awakened on the air by a friend who was a deejay on the local radio station).

In any event, it’s always bemused me that Americans typically identified readiness to go to work early in the morning with moral rigor. Now comes a research strongly suggesting otherwise, per Ilana Strauss at the Atlantic:

DSPS [Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome] affects over 400,000 Americans. Essentially, DSPS means a person’s internal clock is set differently. These clocks, called circadian rhythms, are innate and often change over the course of a person’s life—which is why little kids wake up so early, and teenagers prefer to sleep in.

DSPS sufferers have internal clocks that run at least two hours slower than normal, giving them “social jet lag” which is pretty much what it sounds like: They’re out of sync with the rest of society. They struggle to keep their eyes open during morning business meetings because their bodies are convinced it’s the middle of the night. DSPS can wreak havoc on their health and careers, causing depression, anxiety, brain damage, heart disease, drug addiction, and a myriad of other afflictions due to sleep deprivation.

The whole concept of “flexible work schedules” has been a boon to DSPS sufferers. But they still tend to lose access to the best jobs and salaries–just as, I might add, people who take advantage of the rare opportunities for telecommuting tend to do. That’s in no small part because managers still equate early attendance with virtue, and, well, because they have the power to make others play by their rules.

DSPS and work-related sleep deprivation would be unfortunate but unavoidable if our society had to choose one timetable for everyone to live by. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Cooper notes that the U.S. has migrated from being a manufacturing-based economy to being a knowledge and service based economy—but our jobs haven’t evolved with this shift. “Come in early. Stay late. That’s always been the American way,” says Cooper. “Managers like to see bodies in the office.”

This is one area, notes Strauss, where Europeans are arguably more efficient than Americans.

Flexible work schedules are already very common in Europe. A 2009 study by the European Commission found that flexible working hours is “relatively widespread.” Workers with access to flexible schedules in the EU ranged from about 62 percent in Denmark to about 7-to-10 percent in Bulgaria—with most EU countries in the range of 20-to-40 percent. According to Cooper, most U.K. employees will be working half from home in five years.

Traditionally, managers tend to think more people in the office equals more output, but new research shows that people who work flexible hours are more productive and more likely to stay with their company because they are happier and healthier. Thanks to these findings, the U.K. passed a law in June giving every worker the right to apply for a flexible work arrangement.

This isn’t much happening in the U.S., and it’s probably not a coincidence that interest in flexible work hours declined when labor markets slackened and employers felt no compunctions about making fewer concessions to workers’ needs. But hey, for whatever we are losing in productivity, we’re still number one in virtue!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.