Ping! It’s 6am and your boss is firing off a slew of emails from the (dis)comfort of their Peloton bike. Messages begin piling up in your inbox at such a speed that the only option is to brush the sleep out of your eyes, locate the nearest source of caffeine and get going.
According to a report in The Daily Telegraph earlier this week, civil servants working at 10 Downing Street are facing a scenario not unlike this one. Rishi Sunak’s staffers, a source told the paper, are having to arrive at No 10 “hours early” in order to get on top of their work in line with the prime minister’s early bird tendencies.
The PM is an avowed morning person, previously telling The Twenty Minute VC podcast that he tends to start the day between 6am and 7am. Now, it seems, his team are having to mirror this routine in order to ensure they’re fully prepared for his inevitable bombardment of questions. In “extreme cases”, the report suggests, officials have been turning up at 6am, allowing three hours to better brace themselves for their 9am meetings. “He works round the clock and weekends aren’t usually safe either,” one source claimed ominously. “It’s what you would expect from a prime minister and it’s impressive, but it definitely keeps us all on our toes and hyper-accountable too.” Hmm.
The “early bird catches the worm” mentality runs deep in our working culture. Back when we were a largely agrarian society, “waking up at dawn was crucial for farmers to make the most of the daylight hours”, explains Heather Darwall-Smith, author of The Science of Sleep and a spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy. In the 21st century, starting at daybreak can still offer a practical advantage: time to plough through your to-do list without any distractions, perhaps. But thanks to countless headlines breathlessly detailing the hectic morning schedules of tech bosses and billionaires, an early wake-up call has also become something of a status symbol, synonymous with a very macho form of hyper-productivity and success. Think of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s famous 4am starts – or, to step outside the start-up world for a moment, of Mark Wahlberg’s daily routine, which went viral back in 2018 and featured a frankly terrifying 2.30am alarm, followed by prayers, breakfast and the first of two workouts.
The self-discipline it takes to refrain from snoozing your alarm, Darwall-Smith notes, “is often viewed as a direct reflection of a person’s dedication to their career or personal development” – but this, she says, is simply “a mirage”. In fact, she argues, “there is something insidious in the message that this is what success looks like”. Attempting to adopt an early riser mindset as a form of Silicon Valley-inspired self-optimisation could actually backfire, having major implications on your physical and mental health.
Our natural sleep schedules are determined by our chronotype, which dictates “our propensity for alertness and sleep” as well as the times when “we perform to our best across a 24-hour period”, Darwall-Smith explains. It is rooted in our body’s circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that regulates our hormones and body temperatures as well as our sleep patterns, responding to changes in light. “Some of us are naturally more inclined to being ‘night owl’ types, who are more productive in the evening and prefer to sleep a little bit longer into the morning,” explains sleep practitioner Kerry Davies, the self-described Sleep Fixer. “And on the flip side of that, you’ve got the larks, the people that prefer to have an early night and then get up early in the morning.” Sunak, it seems, is a lark. And there are many of us who are classified as “intermediates”, whose sleep pattern lies somewhere between those two extremes.
Studies on families have shown that our chronotypes are heritable traits. Although they can change over our lifetimes (teenagers’ cycles tend to mean they wake up later) and can be impacted by various environmental factors, it is hard to go against the way that our sleep cycles have been wired. “You can’t just go, ‘I’m going to change my chronotype,’” says Max Kirsten, aka The Sleep Coach, an expert in insomnia and other sleep-related issues. “We’re born with that. You can train yourself to almost be an ‘AM’ or a ‘PM’ [ie, an early or late riser] but I think that there is a cost.”
What’s the cost? Lower productivity, for one. “If you’re forcing a night owl to work at the same time as an early bird, one of them is working at a suboptimal time for their biological rhythm,” Darwall-Smith says. So despite our cultural tendency to put early risers on a pedestal, forcing everyone else to do the same could be seriously self-defeating. Darwall-Smith adds studies “have shown that aligning work schedules with your chronotype can increase productivity”. Apple CEO Cook might rise at the crack of dawn, but it’s worth acknowledging that tech companies like his tend to be better at recognising “the importance of people working at a time that works for them”.
Even more importantly, there are the health implications to consider. The majority of us tend to require around seven hours of sleep at least. The genetic mutation DEC2, which allows some people to get by on five or so hours a night (Sunak’s Tory forebear Margaret Thatcher famously managed on just four) is actually “very, very rare”, Darwall-Smith says. It’s thought to occur in less than one per cent of the population. So if night owls, who are only able to drift off later, are forced to wake up early to coincide with their work pattern (or their bosses’ work pattern), it can lead to “long-term sleep deprivation”, says Davies. This has been linked to a host of medical problems. If you are getting “anything under six hours” of sleep per night, Kirsten says, “there seems to be growing evidence that there’s a greater increase in shortened lives, cancer, and dementia”.
Poor sleep can also “definitely lead to or exacerbate depression and anxiety”, Darwall-Smith adds. “Imagine that feeling when you’re horribly jetlagged, and you’ve got to get up at the wrong time. That’s how [a night owl on an early schedule] is walking through life. It’s really tough … It’s a very lonely place when your sleep goes up the wall and anxiety hits, it’s a horrible place to be.”
There are plenty of social factors that can add further layers of complexity to the picture, too, proving that a one-size-fits-all approach to our morning schedules just isn’t feasible. Caregivers aren’t able to simply drop their responsibilities in order to rush into an office as the sun comes up just because their boss is a “lark”. In fact, perhaps the “status element” of being an early riser is linked to the financial freedom to do this, Darwell-Smith suggests. A blank schedule from 6am onwards implies that staff, or another family member, are picking up the slack.
“Sleep,” Kirsten says, “is one of the underappreciated secret weapons of success” – so why are we still pretending that there’s an inherent value in punishingly early wake-up calls? Experts agree that dragging your colleagues out of bed to fit in with your own body clock is another yawn-inducing and downright damaging form of presenteeism in which workers feel obliged to be in the office at all hours purely for the sake of being seen, driven by a pointlessly macho work culture. All this to say, just let your staffers hit the snooze button, Sunak.