Workplace Wellbeing: Tick tock, working with your body clock 

With the clocks going back this weekend, it’s the ideal opportunity to look at ways to align your natural sleep cycle with your work schedule
Workplace Wellbeing: Tick tock, working with your body clock 

Pic: iStock

Aileen Watters finds it difficult to work late. The 38-year-old from Co Meath used to work in retail when she was younger. 

“The shop opened early and closed late,” she says. “When I was on the early shift, I’d get my work done quickly and easily. But when I worked until closing time, my tills never added up and it took ages for me to finish.”

These days, Watters is a baby and child sleep consultant and is in charge of her work schedule. Because she recognises that she’s a morning person, she tries to get her work done early in the day.

“I’d much rather get up at half five to do my work rather than having to work late into the evening,” she says. 

“I’m at my most productive in the mornings, so I try to have all of my consultations done by one o’clock and for my workday to be finished by four. It’s what works best for me.”

Watters works with her natural circadian rhythm, not against it. This weekend, as the clocks go back and we all adjust to a change in our daily routine, it might be time to ask ourselves if there’s anything we can do to make our work schedule align better with our sleep cycle.

Prof Andrew Coogan is a behavioural neuroscientist and the director of the Chronobiology and Sleep Research Laboratory at Maynooth University. He believes that the cycle is different for everyone.

“We all have a chronotype, our body’s natural preference for wakefulness and sleep,” he says. 

“Some are night owls while others are morning larks. Whether you’re one or the other depends on your genes and how you developed. Generally, in terms of the way we work, people perform better when the timing of their tasks is in synchrony with their chronotype.”

This could mean working nine to five might not be the best way to make a living. 

“It’s not realistic for anyone to be expected to be fully alert and energised for all of that time,” says Coogan. “Our concentration and motivation levels will fluctuate based on our chronotype.”

Twice daily circadian lows

Sleep physiologist Motty Varghese is the director of, which works with organisations to help address employee sleep problems. 

He describes the general pattern of such fluctuations as follows: We wake in the morning and our alertness level rises to reach a peak around noon, then subsides to a low around 3pm before building to another high around 6pm followed by a steady decline to an ultimate low around 3.30am.

“There are two circadian lows in the 24-hour cycle,” he says. “One falls between 2am and 4am and the other between 2pm and 4pm. Morning chronotypes tend to have the lowest alertness around 2am and 2pm, while evening chronotypes are closer to 5am and 5pm.”

This makes sense to Watters. “I’m not a night person at all,” she says. “I have to be in bed by 9.30pm. My husband is the opposite. He gains energy as the day goes on and his work involves some night shifts, which don’t seem to bother him at all.”

About 20% of workers have to work nights, “but it goes against the grain for the vast majority,” says Coogan. 

“We’re diurnal creatures with inbuilt 24-hour circadian clocks designed for us to be active when the sun is up and in bed when it’s down. That’s just the way it is. Morning types tend to struggle more with night shifts, but they are difficult for everyone.”

Motty Varghese, sleep physiologist
Motty Varghese, sleep physiologist

People who work at night can find it challenging to focus and their reaction times can be slower, leading to an increased risk of accidents. 

“Night shifts can also cause a build-up of fatigue,” says Varghese. “This can affect an individual’s ability to operate equipment, make judgements, assess risk, and function effectively.”

Working nights can take a toll on our health too. “Regularly working through the night is associated with a heightened risk of chronic conditions and metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity,” says Coogan. 

“The World Health Organization also classifies it as a possible carcinogen, especially in relation to hormone-dependent cancers.”

While most of us don’t have to worry about the impact of night shifts, Coogan argues that our working days may still be misaligned with our sleep requirements. 

“80% of us need an alarm clock to wake up, which shows that we’re forcing our bodies to wake when they’re not ready,” he says.

A workable sleep schedule

The pandemic allowed many to break free of the tyranny of the alarm clock. “Working from home, the nine to five went out the window,” says Coogan, who has studied the effect of covid lockdowns on sleep.

Before the pandemic, people slept up to 63 minutes longer on weekends than on weekdays, suggesting they were making up for a lack of sleep. 

However, in a study of 797 adults carried out during the first year of covid, people were shown to be sleeping longer on workdays, with a subsequent decline in sleep at weekends.

“People gained more autonomy over when and how they worked and were able to sync it to their personal preferences for sleep,” says Coogan.

He thinks we should, where possible, structure our work to suit our sleep. 

“If you have a job where it doesn’t matter what time you do your work as long as your work gets done, then working at the time that suits you best should lead to an increase in productivity and benefit your health, safety and wellbeing,” he says. “It’s win-win-win.”

He recognises this isn’t possible for everyone. “It’s the ideal but the type of work you do may not allow for it,” he says. 

“Kids and caring responsibilities may make it unattainable too. But if it is achievable, then I would recommend it.”

Even if overhauling your workday to suit your sleep schedule isn’t something you can do, there are small steps you can take to use your chronotype to help rather than hinder your progress. One is taking care when scheduling meetings and other activities that demand focus. 

“Evening types can struggle in the mornings and morning types can struggle in late afternoon,” says Varghese. “Take this into consideration when you can.”

Napping can be helpful for some. “It’s proven to improve alertness and productivity as long as you only nap for 20 minutes and never more than 45,” says Varghese.

Coogan suggests some good sleep practices. “We may not have control over when we have to wake up,” he says. “If we have to be at work by 8am, we probably need to get up at 6am. But we have more control over when we go to bed. So go to bed at a time that allows you to get enough sleep. Set a routine and stick to it. Keep screens out of the bedroom. Make the bedroom as dark as possible. Minimise your intake of caffeine and alcohol and if you’re someone who ruminates in bed, get into the habit of writing your worries down an hour or two before bedtime. That should help you put them out of your mind so you can sleep.”

Prioritising her sleep certainly benefits Watters. “I’m a morning person and I love my sleep, so I make sure I’m asleep by 10pm every night,” she says. “It’s what works for me and I’m sticking to it.”

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