Saturday 19 January 2019

Ian O'Doherty: Later working hours for night owls? Let me sleep on it

Clocking in: Flexible working has been prescribed for night owls in a new report
Clocking in: Flexible working has been prescribed for night owls in a new report
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Well, that's it, I'm toast. Kaput. Finito. I could keel over at any moment. And if you're part of the estimated 15pc of the Irish population who suffers from insomnia, you're in trouble as well. So you better pay attention, because this article could save your life.

Well, it probably won't, but the reason for my newly found, fretful anxiety on behalf of me and the thousands of other sleep-deprived souls out there?

Well, according to a new study co-authored by researchers from the University of Sussex and Northwestern University Chicago, night owls are more likely to die younger.

And we won't even leave a beautiful corpse. Before we eventually expire, presumably in the middle of the night when we're awake and cranky, chronic night owls also face a variety of unpleasant and avoidable illnesses. They're more likely to "suffer from psychological disorders, diabetes, stomach and breathing problems, and sleep fewer hours per night".

Well, I would have thought the "sleep fewer hours per night" was part of the package - but wait, there's more.

Bad sleepers are also "more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and coffee and use illegal drugs". In fairness, if you're sitting up for most of the night, you need something to occupy the time, although I have a strict rule when it comes to coffee - only instant coffee allowed after midnight, never Nespresso. It's important to be responsible, after all.

The study was conducted on more than 400,000 people in the UK, over a period of six-and-a-half years, so it's rather more extensive than the usual survey results we see, but it won't tell us anything we didn't know already.

For starters, there's not much you can do about it. The condition controls you, not the other way around and the more you force yourself to sleep, the less chance you have of ever drifting off.

In fact, as an insomniac, I find the appropriation of my condition by a popular Irish coffee chain to be quite offensive, and under normal circumstances I would make great efforts to cajole and bully them into changing their insensitive name. But I don't have the energy for a campaign, because I haven't had a good night's sleep in years and feel tired all the time.

Difficulty sleeping is a burden but an inability to sleep is a curse.

It's something that always ran in my family of night owls, so I suppose I could always use the handy fallback and blame the parents.

After all, from the time I was about 12, I was allowed to decide when I went to bed, and what adolescent ever wants to go to bed before midnight?

At the time, of course, it was a thrill. It was great going into school knowing that you'd watched all the shows your classmates missed. It was a badge of honour at a time when badges where hard to come by.

But what was once a teenage indulgence has so completely banjoed my body clock that my brain and my body seem to exist in different time zones - when I feel knackered mentally, the body will suggest I bring the dog for a walk.

When I'm physically tired, the brain will kick in and start to run a mile a minute.

Talk to anyone who has difficulty sleeping and they will tell you the same thing, although they might be grumpy when they do so.

They'll talk of the frustration they feel when, just as they're about to drift off, some new thought crosses their mind and they know that sleep has just disappeared for the night. They'll talk of the endless, almost suffocating fatigue they feel during the day. The scratchy eyeballs that sting when they blink. The anxiety that arrives when they feel tired but know there's nothing they can do about it. They'll wonder if they'll ever have a good night's sleep again - and when you haven't slept properly for a week, that feels like a life sentence.

Part of it is down to individual nature - some people simply have different rhythms and their body shuts down at different times.

Part of it, however, is also force of habit - I mean, have you looked at the Horror Channel late at night? It's brilliant. From Hammer ­staples to obscure slasher movies to ­exploitation classics like Cannibal Holocaust, there's something there for the ghoul in everyone.

If it's not the Horror Channel, there's usually a decent end-of-world documentary on the History Channel - Apocalypse When and 10 Ways the World Will End make for riveting telly, even if watching civilisation being destroyed in a variety of new and hideous ways is probably not the best preparation for a relaxing slumber.

Working when you're knackered is no fun, but you get used to it. You don't really have much choice, after all.

But the people behind the study have come up with an ingenious plan to make life easier for those of who can't sleep - later starting hours in work.

According to one of the report's authors, Kristen Knutson: "If you can recognise these (types) are, in part, genetically determined and not just a character flaw, jobs and work hours could have more flexibility for night owls.

"They shouldn't be forced to get up for an 8am shift."

That's a handy excuse the next time you're bollocked by your boss for turning up late - you have a disability, and your employer is discriminating against you.

I wonder, will that excuse work the next time I'm ridiculously late filing my column? (No, don't even try it - ed.)

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