Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome is a real thing

As an unrepentant night owl, I can relate to this problem:
No matter how early she went to bed, Maggie couldn’t fall asleep until the early hours of the morning. Though constantly exhausted, Maggie (she asked that I not use her last name) got good grades in high school, but she'd frequently get in trouble for coming in late and napping during her morning classes.
Maggie dreamt of going to medical school. Unfortunately, she couldn't concentrate during early morning science classes in college, and she had to switch her major from biology to literature. Her post-grad situation was no better: Waking up for her 8:30 a.m. teaching position turned her into a zombie, and she lost her job because she lacked enthusiasm. She switched career paths to take on a marketing position that was supposed to be afternoon-only, but once her boss started requiring her to come in mornings, it didn't work out—and she's now unemployed.

Maggie isn't lazy; she suffers from delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS)—a disorder that affects one in 750 adults that causes them to be somewhat nocturnal. By that estimate, DSPS affects over 40,000 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.

DSPS is often confused with insomnia, perhaps because sufferers seem sluggish and tired during the day. But the two disorders are actually very different: Insomniacs have trouble with the actual process of falling asleep, often due to anxiety or other factors. People with DSPS sleep perfectly fine during the hours their bodies tell them to. And DSPS isn't simply the preference to be a “night owl”—DSPS sufferers can’t fall asleep early even if they want to.

All of this amounts to bad news for DSPS sufferers in the world of work. According Cary Cooper, a psychologist and professor at Lancaster University Management School, when people who have DSPS wake up early for work, they become sleep deprived which causes them to be less efficient, innovative, and creative at the office. People with DSPS have trouble finding positions that allow them to work hours that let them get enough sleep. This also results in more stress, and can cause workplace accidents. A 2010
Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study found that sleep deprivation costs companies an average of $2000 a year per worker.
Sometimes I wonder if I might be among those 40,000 DSPS sufferers: I regularly struggle to fall asleep at night and barely manage to make myself wake up and get to work in the morning. I do manage to stay alert during the workday – thank you, Mother Nature, for coffee – but I make up for lost sleep by sleeping in until noon or even later on weekends, something which annoyed my ex-wife (indeed, perhaps it is one of the reasons why she is now my ex) and perturbs Kirby on weekends I have him (I will wake up to make his breakfast and then go back to bed, only to have him come into my bedroom and pester me a short while later).

This is the way it’s been for me since I was a teenager. Going to bed earlier does not work for me: I simply toss and turn and stare at the ceiling. Taking sleep aids like melatonin or Tylenol PM don’t really seem to work that well, either. Perhaps I should see a sleep specialist, if for no other reason than to be officially diagnosed, but even if I am found to suffer from DSPS there really doesn’t seem to be much that can be done for it, at least medically:
"It's easier to treat someone with straight-up insomnia," said Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist at The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Nothing works particularly well except getting a night job." Furthermore, if night owls and DSPS sufferers force themselves to live by the dawn to dusk schedule, they deprive themselves of their most productive hours.
I, too, feel like I am more productive and creative late at night. 
This isn't to say that I am worthlessly unproductive during the day; it just feels like the late evening is when I'm at my best, especially in terms of writing. Which is why readers will notice that almost all of my blog entries bear late-night timestamps.

The best thing for DSPS suffers, it seems, is to find a job that works with their schedule:
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.”
The fact is that our society is biased towards early birds and against night owls: think of all the clichés that either extol the virtues of early wakefulness (“the early bird gets the worm,” “early to bed, early to rise…,” etc.) or denigrate those who stay up late (“nothing good ever happens after midnight”); in our culture, somebody who rises early is seen as a ambitious self-starter, an achieving go-getter. Somebody who sleeps in late, on the other hand,  is considered to be an apathetic slouch: decadent and indulgent, lacking ambition and drive. Trying to argue against these biases by saying “I suffer from DSPS” is unlikely to earn you any sympathy, either: there doesn’t seem to be a lot of general awareness about DSPS, especially since it only affects 1 out of every 750 people, and there will always be those who insist that DSPS is nothing but a hoax, an excuse for lazy people to slack. 

This mindset is beginning to change on the other side of the pond:
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.
My previous consulting job, in fact, did oftentimes allow me to work until the wee hours of the morning: for most of the time I was with that employer, I was the only person in my sector who worked out of the Houston office, which meant I rarely had to show up at the office at eight AM sharp. This arrangement is not available with my current employer, so I cope. Did I mention how thankful I am for coffee?

There could come a point, sometime in the future, when I return to an employment situation that allows me to work a flexible schedule in tune with my body's schedule. In the meantime, I’ll drag myself into work on the weekdays and use my off Fridays and weekends to sleep in. If Kirby will let me.

1 comment:

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I find that my current consulting job has allowed me to fix my own hours and choose to sleep later. I still get 8 hours of work in, it's just from 10 to 6 or 11 to 7 instead of 8 to 4 or 9 to 5. I feel so much better now because I'm actually getting enough sleep that is recommended. I hope you find a job soon where you can get on your own schedule. It's so helpful