Brain Push

Can you push your brain too far?

How to manage your body clock when working across international time zones

By Thea O'Connor, workplace health presenter, writer and founder of NapNow - Work Smarter, Live Brighter

Late night phone calls? Teleconferences at 3am? Meetings that run to midnight? When working odd hours, how far can the human body flex its ancient biological programming for sleep at night and work by day, before health and productivity begin to falter?

The tech tools of our digital age offer unprecedented opportunities to participate in the global economy and secure new clients across the other side of the world. However, working odd hours can leave you on the groggy side of wakefulness and tired and cranky when you actually get to leave the office and regroup at home.

It’s probably the worst kind of “shift work”’ you can do – irregular, often unpredictable and largely unacknowledged. There’s no loading on your pay slip and no record of those extra “graveyard” hours you worked. Nor is there room for complaints in work cultures that regard sleeplessness as a sign of strength.

We are talking about the sleep-disrupting work schedules that arise from participating in phone calls and teleconferences at all hours of the night, while servicing international clients or managing global teams.

CT Johnson, Managing Director of Cross Border Management, certainly tests the limits. Based in Sydney, he teaches lawyers how to break into the Asian market, while servicing his own clients in China, the United States and Western Europe. Sometimes he truly does work 24/7.

“About a month ago I had calls with Sydney in the morning, the US in the late morning, then in the afternoon there was a problem in China that went on into the night and I ended up staying awake for a full cycle,” Johnson says.

And his limit? “Once I go past 28 to 32 hours of wakefulness I simply have to get some sleep or it just becomes silly. I have learnt to grab sleep whenever I can.”

Research reported in US-based Nature Magazine, indicates that our brain becomes “silly”’ well before that. After only 17 hours of wakefulness – working away at 11pm, for example, after rising at 6 am – our cognitive function and reaction time become equivalent to that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05. After 20 hours we behave like a drunk with a reading of 0.1.

How much sleep do you need?

The amount of sleep an individual needs to function well ranges from about six to nine hours per night. Numerous studies have found that achieving less than six to six and a half hours sleep significantly increases the risk of poor health and wellbeing, as summarised in this Huffington Post report.

If your work pattern not only deprives you of sleep but consistently disrupts your body clock, your health takes a double hit. Long-term shift-workers, for example, face an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and sleep apnoea, according to Dr Gerard Kennedy, Clinical Sleep Psychologist at Austin Health, Melbourne. Kennedy warns people who work night shifts are also at a slightly increased risk of breast and testicular cancer.

How to look after your body clock

If it’s just a one-off, usually a good night’s sleep the following night can be enough to catch up, according to Dr Kennedy. “However, if you need to do important work the next day or safety-critical work such as driving, try to get a few extra hours sleep in the morning, or take a “palliative power nap” early afternoon.” Kennedy advises you limit the power nap to no more than 30 minutes, to avoid feeling groggy afterwards. And take the nap no later than 3pm. An article published in The Journal of Sleep claims it takes just 10 minutes of actual sleep to get another three hours of energy and reduce errors made at work.

And the best time for out-of-hours calls?

Do whatever you can to stay away from the “witching hours” after midnight and before dawn.

“A ‘circadian dip’ occurs between about 2am and 4am,” says Kennedy. “This is when we experience our strongest drive for sleep, so you’ll experience strong ‘sleep inertia’ – a groggy, disoriented feeling – if dragged out of bed at this time. Some of the worst workplace accidents in history have occurred during this dip.

“As well, it can be difficult to fall back to sleep after 4am as the drive to sleep dissipates as the night goes on.

“When you do have to be woken in the wee hours, and you need to make important decisions, turn on the light and allow 10 to 20 minutes for the sleep inertia to clear.”

Watch your staff

Kennedy advises managers and senior executives to look out for signs of fatigue in their staff, especially when international hook-ups are a regular part of a working week.

Irritability, grumpiness, making errors on routine tasks or struggling to get to work in the morning, all indicate it’s time to authorise some recovery time so workers can unplug, defrag and recharge.

If you have problems getting back into a good sleep rhythm, try to get lots of exercise and exposure to sunlight during the day. Cut right back on alcohol, caffeine and exposure to light from screens, which all disrupt our sleep cycles. If that fails, Kennedy suggests trying a low dose of melatonin (the sleep-inducing hormone) of about one to three milligrams, a few hours before going to bed.

So how is your brain supposed to cope? 5 tips to manage working around the clock:

1. Whenever possible, avoid being awake for more than 17 to 20 hours. If you are, have someone cross-check your work or decisions afterwards. 
2. Avoid phone hook-ups between 1 am and 5 am. 
3. If you must take a call during the circadian dip before dawn, don’t panic if it takes you longer to drop back off to sleep. 
4. Ask your staff if they are morning or night people and schedule meetings to fit in with the majority. 
5. As a manager, try to allow your staff to start a little later the next morning or to catch up on sleep via a power-nap, limit late night/early morning calls to once a week, and model saying “no” to unreasonable hours.

Free online tools:

Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar are time-zone aware and can present a table of busy and free times of meeting participants in your own time-zone, regardless of where they are. Outlook and Google will automatically adjust to a new time-zone when you travel. - helps you find the best time across time zones - gives you a quick overview of multiple time zones - a time zone converter, and an online meeting scheduler
Miranda - an iOS app that converts time zones

Thea O’Connor is a workplace health presenter, writer and coach, specialising in personal sustainability. She is founder of NapNow, Work Smarter Live Brighter.