We live in a world that worships the early riser. Think of everything we’re told on the virtues of waking up early:
”The early bird catches the worm.”
”Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man... “ (Ben Franklin’s most famous saying).
”Nice of you to join us today” (snarky dictum of teachers and bosses everywhere).
The message is clear: Starting early is the way to get ahead; lateness is ugly as sin.
In 2016, I reported on the science of chronobiology, which finds we all have an internal clock that keeps us on a consistent sleep and wake cycle. But the key finding is that everyone’s clock is not the same. Most people fall in the middle, preferring to sleep around 11 pm to 7 am. But many — perhaps 40 percent of the population — don’t naturally fit in this schedule.
There are night owls among us — whose whole circadian schedules are shifted later — and morning larks, who are shifted earlier. These traits are determined by genetics and are extremely hard to change. What’s more, the research is finding that if we fight our chronotypes, our health may suffer.
But most striking to me wasn’t the health implications of messing with your clock. It was the stigma late sleepers feel in a society ruled by early risers. Simply put: These late sleepers are tired of being judged for a behavior they cannot easily control. If they can’t change their sleep patterns, maybe society should become more accepting of them.
Late sleepers are made to feel like losers
I spoke to several people with delayed sleep phase, a condition that puts people on the extreme end of the night-owl chronotype. These people have a hard time falling asleep before 2 or 3 am, and prefer to sleep until around noon. There’s nothing wrong with their sleep other than that their schedules for it are shifted.
We tend to assume that late wakers are the partiers, the deadbeats, the ones who are so irresponsible they can’t keep a basic schedule. The people I spoke to found these assumptions to be personally damaging.
”I felt like such a loser because I wasn’t able to do it [wake up early],” Kat Park, a health care administrator in her 30s who lives in Overland Park, Kansas, told me in 2016.
Growing up in a strict, traditional Korean household, Park said she had a hard time living up to her parents’ expectations. “They just thought I was a lazy fuck-up,” she said. During college, she self-medicated with a mix of stimulants in the morning and alcohol at night — not to party but just to function on society’s schedule. “The stimulants would make me edgy and then they wouldn’t wear off at night,” she said. “It was bad.” At one point, she was fired from a job for sleeping in too often.
Night owl Cassidy Solokis, then a junior at Northern Arizona University, said she’s also suffered a lot: “People have mocked me for it, saying how lazy I am, that I’m not trying hard enough, and that really bothers me, because it’s not my fault. I’m really, really trying, and it’s just not working.”
Solokis said that even the first doctor she saw about the condition didn’t believe her. “He told me to stop drinking coffee and I’d be fine,” she explained. “And when it didn’t work, he assumed I was lying.” So she sought the care of another specialist.
If doctors don’t believe in the condition, peers are even less likely to empathize. “It’s really frustrating; when you try to explain it to another person, they don’t get it,” she said.
Andreas, a delayed sleeper who I chatted with over email, also worries that the condition is very difficult to explain: “My first reaction when I heard about the condition was, ‘Oh, no, this is one of those conditions that no one will take seriously. I better keep it to myself.’”
The late sleepers I spoke to also lamented how struggling to fit in hurt their performance in daily life.
”There’s a lot of emotional baggage tied up into going to work,” Amy, a Seattle resident with delayed sleep phase, told me. “You’re arriving later, you feel like you’re not actually present, when people ask you questions you give stupid answers.”
Should late sleepers change their habits, or should society become more accepting of them?
Delayed sleep phase is extreme. Less than 1 percent of the population has it. But in talking with people who have the disorder, I wondered if their experiences are mirrored in people with less extreme chronotypes. What happens if you naturally like to sleep until 9 am but are forced to go in for an 8 am meeting? Or what happens to teens — who have delayed sleep phase in much higher numbers — who need to wake up for early morning classes?
Camilla Kring is the founder of the B-society, an international advocacy group calling for increased acceptance of the evening-oriented. “I actually think we have a lot of discrimination in our society against late chronotypes,” she said. Meetings at the beginning of workdays favor early risers (whose mental sharpness peaks earlier as well).
In a world where an internet connection makes working whenever, wherever possible, she argues, companies ought to allow workers to set more flexible schedules around their ideal sleep time.
According to Kring, small changes could make a huge impact. “Just by changing your schedule by an hour or two, it can result in having more sleep, higher productivity,” she says. In this view, workplaces ought to be more accommodating of chronotypes.
The research generally backs this idea up. “Although we should avoid a simplistic shortcut of associating ET [evening types] to some negative aspects, the data point to the idea that an [evening type] pattern is a risk factor for some disorders, whereas [morning type] is a protection factor,” a 2012 review of hundreds of papers in the academic literature concludes.
But it also just makes common sense: We should be working when we feel most alert and productive. Whether disparities can be fixed by altering schedules to better suit chronotypes hasn’t undergone rigorous scientific testing. To me, it seems harmless enough to try.