Sad woman at work, sitting at a desk in the dark wearing a coat, hat and scarf.
Image: © stokkete/

Should we be working less in winter?

6 Jan 2020

According to scientific research, reduced office hours during the winter months could be beneficial for our health.

Shorter hours inside the office could be a possibility in 2020, from initiatives to reduce the length of the work week to giving employees greater flexibility in terms of when or where they clock in. So, whether it’s working from home or getting an extra day tacked on to our weekends, we could be on our way to achieving a better work-life balance. And that could be more critical now – during the winter months – than any other time of the year.

Many of us are familiar with the typical seasonal routine that sees us arrive at work just as it’s starting to brighten outside and leave after the sun has already set. This may not be a routine conducive to productivity and job satisfaction, and there’s plenty of research that agrees.

The impacts of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), for example, is a condition that occurs repetitively at a particular time of year, often around autumn and winter, and can manifest as irritability or depression during the colder, darker months, affecting mood or sleep patterns. Experts have started to see SAD as a spectrum rather than something that’s all-or-nothing, meaning that it could impact anyone to a different extent.

Even without SAD, January and February are two of the least productive months of the year. It’s not simply a case of feeling down after all the Christmas festivities have finished, research tells us, but a symptom of our biological body clock being neglected.

Speaking to Wired, Greg Murray, professor of psychology at Australia’s Swinburne University, said: “If our body clock is saying it wants us to wake up at nine o’clock, because it’s a dark winter’s day, but we are getting ourselves up at seven o’clock – then we are missing out on a complete sleep phase. The body likes to do those things in synchrony with the body clock, which is the master controller of where our body and behaviour is relative to the sun.”

Murray explained the ‘phase delay’ that our body’s clock experiences in winter, meaning that it’s “nudged” later in the morning. This makes it harder for us to get out of bed.

The body clock regulates circadian rhythm, which manages our cycles between being awake and sleeping. And disrupting it has been shown to be unhealthy, as observed in workers with shift hours, such as nurses.

But it’s not just those in a busy career who could benefit from working hours more aligned with their circadian rhythm. A study delaying school start times for students in England suggested that more sleep can lead to greater energy and less absence due to illness, as well as improvements in performance.

What bosses ‘should say’

Greater flexibility has been generally recommended for worker health, wellbeing and productivity year-round, but it could be a crucial step for helping workers remain positive throughout the winter months in particular.

Speaking to Wired, Till Roenneberg, professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, said: “Bosses should say, ‘I don’t care when you come to work, come when you have slept to your biological end, because we both will win from this situation’.

“You will give your best performance. You will have a better time at work because you will feel how efficient you are. And the sick days will be reduced.”

Until more flexible hours become a reality in Ireland, it’s important that we take particular care of ourselves during these darker months. Take a look at some advice from Glandore’s Clare Kelly about surviving work during winter, from taking the time to prepare for each day to changing up your routine.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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