We may be ostensibly living in an era of "flexible working" but fixed working hours and presenteeism are still a fact of life for huge swathes of the population. While many of us could ask our bosses for greater flexibility, the fact is, some companies still prefer to see their employees physically sitting in their office chairs as "proof" of productivity.
And yet we know that a fixed 9am-to-5pm schedule clearly isn't working for everyone. We all have different schedules, demands at home and natural sleep patterns. Now one sleep expert is calling on workplaces to allow employees to start work as late as midday in some cases.
Dr Paul Kelley, a research associate in sleep science at the Open University and former headmaster (who began his own lessons at 11am and reported increased concentration levels from students), says that while a midday start would be best for some, a 10am start would suit most people.
In his new book, Body Clocks, published this month, Kelley argues that employees who ignore their circadian rhythms risk their health, and that employers who want healthier, happier and more productive employees should allow them to delay start times by at least an hour, the Sunday Times reported. Inflexible workplaces, he argues, could even find themselves being sued for making employees ill.
"Across the western world, adults are averaging 6½ hours sleep a night during their working lives, when science shows we need at least eight," Kelley writes, pointing to the growing number of studies linking a lack of sleep to everything from obesity and weight gain to mental ill-health, cancer and early death.
He says a 10am start would suit most people's natural sleep patterns, although a fifth of people who would otherwise wake up naturally at midday or later would still suffer. "Start times of 10am are the fairest (and best) if everyone had to choose a single starting time. That would reduce sleep loss for the population as a whole. It would suit most, though not all, of the five types [of people] we have identified," he says.
The groups of sleepers identified by Kelley range from "definitely morning" larks (who wake up naturally at about 5am) to "definitely evening" owls (who don't wake up until 4pm). "Throughout working life, morning types benefit while evening types are afflicted by a range of disadvantages and are more likely to die earlier," he argues in the book.
A 10am start would allow people to wake up at around 8am, which, he claims, "would have an immediate positive impact on current levels of adult sleep deprivation caused by early workday start times. It would reduce sleep deprivation by 70%, to 36 minutes on average a day."
Kelley encourages people to find out their own sleep chronotype in a quiz published on the Sunday Times website. While interesting, this knowledge would, however, be little use to many full-time workers who lack the option of greater flexibility when it comes to working hours. Maria Stafford, 27, an estate agent in north London, is a fan of Kelley's proposal but has no choice but to work her current hours of 9am to 6pm. "A 10am start sounds realistic with most people's sleep patterns. It would make me more productive, potentially healthier and I'd be happier with a lie-in."
It also takes people's work travel time into account, Stafford adds. "I’m lucky to live a 30-minute drive away from work but other people in my office have to commute into central London, so they have to be up before six to get ready and take up to two hours to get into work on time. The morning rush hour is the worst and always causes delays." Then, by the time people get home in the evenings, there aren't enough hours in the day to get a minimum of eight hours sleep, she continues. "And that’s if they don’t even have a family to raise at the same time!"
Seetal Savla, 37, a digital marketing account manager in London, describes herself as "a terrible sleeper" so a slower start to the day would suit her better, too. Her current hours are from 8.30am to 5.30pm but she would prefer 10am to 7pm, which she worked in a previous job. "I don't feel very awake until around 11am-12pm, so I'm not at my most productive before this time."
A 10am start would also give her time to work out before work, freeing up her evenings for other activities, like seeing friends and family, relaxing or working on her blog. While Savla believes her boss might be receptive to her working more flexibly, given that a colleague already works her preferred hours, she drives to work with her husband and they only have one car. "It would be really difficult to get in otherwise."
Similarly, Cecilia Adeline, 26, a marketing executive, would favour a later shift of 10am to 7pm. Currently, she starts work at 8.30am and finishes at 6pm, but also identifies as a night owl. "I'm not a morning person, and would like to avoid traffic on the way to work. It would mean I could go to the gym before work, as the gyms near me don't open until 8am."
Unfortunately, it's very unlikely she'd be able to request greater flexibility, however. "My boss is very into replying to customers quickly, so starting work at 10am is probably unacceptable. Although I think I – and everyone else – should have the option."
Some people are lucky enough to have bosses who are more receptive to the idea, however, and are already reaping the benefits of more sleep. Hela Gacem, 22, a recruitment consultant in West Yorkshire, believes her working hours should become the universal norm. She clocks in at 10am five days a week and and finishes no later than 5pm, which works for her, although she'd always welcome an extra hour in bed.
"I'd rather start work later for the obvious reason – you get a lie-in, but also because it allows you to have enough sleep without having to go to bed so early. At this time of year most people go to work in the dark and come home in the dark to have their tea and then go to bed again, because they have to be up at 6am for the next day," she says.
Starting at 10am rather than 9am "definitely makes [her] more productive," and she has the option to come in early and stay late if necessary. "When your hours are so good you don't mind coming in an extra hour early to get bits done." Her boss has a flexible approach to the hours she and her colleagues work, largely because the industry is "hectic 24/7" and they often end up bringing work home with them in the evenings anyway.
By contrast, she believes, "when managers work you to the bone, don't look after you and pay you peanuts, you don't want to work there and you'll happily look for another job with better hours and benefits." In a world where remote and flexible working from Bali beaches and trendy shared workspaces is fetishized, it's a shame more bosses aren't as trusting as hers.