Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome is Real
Some people are hard-wired to go to bed late and wake up late. They’re not lazy and they’re not insomniacs. Instead, they just have to keep a late sleep schedule or they’re liable to pay a huge toll in their health and well-being, not to mention their careers. To function well, we all need to match our sleep schedule to our body's circadian rhythms, which are being increasingly researched by sleep experts.
In this fifth story in a series about delayed sleep phase syndrome (also DSPS, or delayed sleep), you’ll meet Tina Garner, an engineering design drafter in Melbourne, Australia. A delayed sleep sufferer, she discovered light therapy, a daily discipline that enables her to adapt her sleep schedule to the 9-to-5 world. (Garner asked me not to publish her real name because of the stigma around being a night owl.) To learn the basics about delayed sleep, see the first interview in this series, "How Your Bedtime is Affecting Your Job Performance," with Peter Mansbach, Ph.D., president of the Circadian Sleep Disorders Network.
Medical Condition or Laziness?
Garner’s need to go to bed late and wake up late was severe. “I understand most people go through periods of poor sleep,” she says. “But this was every night. I couldn't sleep till at least 3 a.m.” And despite the resulting exhaustion, Garner says that the following night she wasn’t able to fall asleep until late.
Garner initially held off on going to the doctor because she didn't think of her difficulty in getting to sleep earlier as a medical condition. When she started her first career as a freelance graphic designer, she mostly had a say over her hours. However, tired of being a starving artist, Garner decided to “get into the drafting/engineering side of things.” She continues, “This required me to study from 8:30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. five days a week—which I did, but it nearly killed me. I was going to sleep after 3 a.m. and getting up at 7 a.m. with no sign that my sleep was adjusting. That is when I decided, it couldn't be normal and to go to the doc.”
Light Therapy Can Help
Garner shares that her circadian rhythm runs from 3:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., which she says is “distinctly inconvenient if you're trying to work 9 to 5.” She offers this analogy when explaining how light therapy works: “Imagine your body clock is an old-school stopwatch that you have to wind up each day to keep it running at the correct time.” She says that normally, from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep, you are receiving cues that are essentially "winding" your clock, and this happens automatically. The strongest of these cues is light.
Garner continues that in people with delayed sleep, “the little winder on their stopwatch is broken. Light therapy is like taking a pair of pliers to the winder and manually making sure that the clock is wound up each day.” The trouble is that just like in the case of the stopwatch, if she doesn’t get the light she needs, her body clock doesn't get wound up and she starts reverting to her later sleep schedule. "It only takes one day for this ‘slowing’ or ‘shifting’ to happen,” she says.
Garner adds that she has to get her light therapy at a specific time—at 6 a.m. to synch with her work schedule. But it took about four weeks of light therapy for her to get to that point. “The hardest thing about light therapy is the weekend!” she says. “To work at all, the therapy has to be every day, so even on weekends I get up at 6 a.m. and get the light.”
Light Therapy Doesn't Always Work
Garner said light therapy has worked incredibly well for her, but it doesn’t for a lot of delayed sleep sufferers. To those people she says “normal work is nearly impossible.” When light therapy isn’t working and all you want is a chance to work and earn a reasonable wage, Garner shares that it is very easy to say, "It’s not fair.” In cases like that, she says that delayed sleep sufferers should get a special dispensation because they have a medical condition that they can’t help. “Trouble is, life isn't that black and white,” she adds.
Managing Sleep Issues & a Career
Garner’s advice about asking for accommodations from a prospective employer is to be reasonable.” She adds, “The company might be able to offer you some accommodation, but odds are it won't be enough. It might be up to you to try and stick real hard to whatever treatment you're on and meet them halfway. Either way it's bloody tough and there is no easy solution for DSPS sufferers.”
If you’re currently employed and thinking of asking your employer for accommodations, Garner cautions that if your company runs on a 9-to-5 clock and your role depends on others within the company, pick your battles. She says, “I am required to liaise continuously with engineers in order to do my job.” In cases like hers, Garner says that there isn't much point asking for an accommodation from an employer because they can't accommodate you. She says that it doesn't make sense to get angry at them, and suggests either shifting to a more independent role or changing companies.
Ask for Flexible Scheduling
In her own case, Garner says that she's never gotten any accommodations—but then again, she's never asked for any. "In a way, I was very fortunate that I was unemployed when I started the light therapy that controls my sleep," she says. She adds that for her, light therapy is very effective, but underscores that it takes weeks to get it to start working. "Had I been working full time, I would have needed accommodations from my employers to take about four weeks’ sick/annual leave. In my industry there is no real leeway for later hours. It's very 9-5, so it's good I got it sorted."
Garner continues, “In this global village, more and more ‘offices’ keep later and more flexible hours, many run flexi-shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” which she says is still early for a delayed sleep sufferer. But she adds that if a company offers some flexibility in workers’ schedules, it may be open to later schedules too. “Even if they don't officially do that, many companies have people working those hours anyway—and it can't hurt to propose it. After all, they will be getting a more effective employee.”
“In terms of succeeding with a career, for me the answers are simple: persistence and discipline,” says Garner. “I'm 29 now and have only been working in what I consider my career since I was 27. It was a long slog to get here. It took persistence to find the right combination of treatment and jobs.” She stresses that her light therapy is a daily discipline. “There is no ‘I don't feel like it today’” excuse, she says, unless she wants to risk losing her footing on her current career path.
Garner suggests being reasonable, realistic, and informed about the jobs you’re considering as well as your condition if you suffer from delayed sleep. “Know exactly what you're capable of,” she says, “and know exactly what is expected of you in the role you're looking at.” She recommends researching all jobs before you bother applying for them. “Know what the company work hours are,” she says, and know your role. “Can you stay late working independently? Is it shift work? After all, there is no point getting a job if you can't keep it.”
For the rest of this series, click on the following:
- Part I
- Part II
- Part III
- Part IV
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