Don’t Lose Sleep Over Your Work Hours
The connection between async-first work and a good night’s rest.
In praise of the workday nap.
One of the great joys of remote work? The freedom to doze off in the middle of the day.
The exquisite retreat from screen time to low light and linen. The slightly illicit feeling of sneaking in some shut-eye when so many others are at their workstations. Most of all, the deliciousness of waking up to a workday already half over, refreshed and recharged.
To clarify, this is not an endorsement of sleeping on the job. I’m talking about having actual permission to power nap, a license to lull — one of the features of working asynchronously.
There’s actually good reason to believe we are meant to nap. Your 24-hour circadian rhythm features what sleep expert Matthew Walker, in Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, calls an “evolutionarily imprinted lull in wakefulness” in the mid-afternoon hours — technically known as the post-prandial dip. It’s definitely not the time to try to get your best work done.
Studies have also shown that a nap can be useful for problem-solving, along with the strengthening and consolidation of new memories. Most obviously of all, getting in between the sheets between shifts is is the perfect remedy for last night’s rudely disrupted sleep.
“Naps lead to some of the same recovery as nighttime sleep, just typically on a much smaller scale,” management professor Christopher Barnes told me. “I think of this from a Return on Investment perspective. If an employee can invest 15 minutes into a nap, and be more effective for the rest of the workday, that is probably really good ROI.”
Clearly, naps are a delectable remote work perk. But there’s even more to unpack when it comes to the relationship between remote work and rest.
Sleep loss is bad for you (and for business).
Some people rise early; others are naturally inclined to staying up late. We can’t choose our circadian rhythms any more than we can choose how tall we are.
And yet, under rigid and traditional office hours, many people are losing sleep, and being forced to work when they are not at their most alert or energetic. The straitjacket of the 9-to-5 is arguably at the heart of what Walker has called a “sleep loss epidemic.”
According to Why We Sleep, losing just an hour or two of sleep can have noticeable and harmful effects on work outcomes.
Under-slept employees are not as productive, creative, motivated, or happy as their well-slept counterparts. “Even the simplest daily routines that require slight effort, such as time spent dressing neatly or fashionably for the workplace, have been found to decrease following a night of sleep loss,” he writes.
According to a 2014 study, unsuitable working hours can even lead to unethical behavior: evening people behave less ethically in the morning, while morning people behave less ethically in the evening.
Perhaps most worrisome of all, lack of sleep has been linked to neurological and psychiatric conditions, disorders and disease. “Every major system, tissue, and organ of your body suffers when sleep becomes short,” writes Walker.
Sleep better, work better, live better.
The solution to widespread sleeplessness may lie in a new way of working.
With more companies embracing asynchronous working styles, more workers are freed up to determine when they clock in and clock out, optimizing their workday so that they work when they can do their best work, and rest when necessary too. In scientific terms, employees are finally able to align their work schedules with their chronotypes, or natural waking and sleeping rhythms.
This is in addition to the obvious benefit enjoyed by async workers, of being better able to manage the other demands in their lives, from child or elder care to paying that necessary visit to the post office.
“The ability to decide not only where but when you want to work — that’s the actual flexibility that people are looking for.”
Bjelland herself can attest to the fact that those who have more control over their waking lives — and working lives — sleep more soundly. Suffering from chronic insomnia since her teenage years, she has spent countless sleepless hours, she said, calculating how many hours’ worth of sleep she would have, if only she could fall asleep.
“Anyone with chronic insomnia will tell you the worst thing that you can do to get to sleep is be more anxious about it,” she told me. “It’s this horrible cycle of becoming more anxious about not sleeping, which keeps you from sleeping.”
In 2011, Bjelland landed a remote job with an edtech company. They were based in Provo, Utah, while she was on the east coast, which meant that meetings and appointments didn’t start till around 11am her time.
Remote, asynchronous work means having more control over how, where, and when you work — and when you sleep.
For the first time in her professional life, she was liberated from the anxiety of having to wake up early.
“Just taking away that requirement to be awake at a certain time helped my overall mindset to be much more relaxed about sleep. I knew I would be able to sleep until my body told me not to.”
Today, in her work with Workplaceless, Bjelland spends a lot of time advising employers and employees to find that freedom for themselves — to adopt more flexible work schedules and work asynchronously.
“Asynchronous work is about being able to decide, according to your schedule and your needs, what is going to be best for you,” she said. “It allows you to bring your best self to work every day.”
The 9-to-5 model is not just a drag — it’s unjust.
For many, asynchronous working is the antidote to a society that privileges early risers over night owls — a society in which, for example, employee start times influence supervisor performance ratings.
“Early risers have the competitive edge,” Camilla Kring, a Danish business consultant and founder of B-Society, a night owl advocacy group, told me. “Why are we considered less productive if we prefer an active evening and calm morning? And why do early risers have the patent on discipline, simply because they get up early?
“It’s time to move from a collective work design to an individual work and life design. From one size fits all to one size fits one. When you find your rhythm, you get a better and more sustainable life.”
As Bjelland points out, many remote workers are still tethered to business hours and remain at the mercy of other people’s schedules.
“True autonomy is empowered by asynchronous communication and collaboration,” she said.
“If you are working remotely, but you are in back-to-back video meetings from 7am to 6pm, that is not flexibility. That is not autonomy.”
Don’t try to be a “short-sleep superhero.”
We’ve all met workers for whom sleep deprivation is a way of life, who wear their scant sleep hours like a badge of honor.
“It’s frustrating to me, as a person who has really suffered with sleep, to see people not take advantage of their natural ability to sleep,” said Bjelland. “It just seems like a waste.
“It’s also just damaging in general. In a culture that really glorifies lack of sleep, people who are good at sleep — for lack of a better phrase — are more inclined to develop bad habits. And if you already do have sleep troubles, it’s just going to be exacerbated by ‘hustle culture.'”
According to Christopher Barnes, who has studied the link between poor sleep and abusive supervision, sleep loss is just plain bad for leadership.
“Sleep deprivation undermines the degree to which leaders express positive emotions in their interactions with subordinates,” Barnes told me.
“When leaders get a poor night of sleep, the next day those leaders tend to engage in more abusive behaviors toward their subordinates, which leads to lower work engagement, and undermines the degree to which those subordinates see that leader as charismatic. In other words, sleep deprivation undermines the degree to which leaders inspire their followers.”
Think you’re immune to the ravages of sleep loss? Don’t be so sure. As Barnes’ studies also show, many workers underestimate the extent to which sleep loss negatively impacts their performance.
“Even those who are more robust to sleep deprivation are not fully robust across all outcomes — and definitely not to all levels of sleep deprivation — so their superpowers are very limited,” he said. “Most people who think they are short-sleep superheroes are fooling themselves.”