On Sunday, March 27th the clocks go forward by one hour as the UK switches to British Summer Time (BST). But what does this mean for our sleep?
The move to British Summer Time, or Daylight Savings Time (DST), is designed to maximise the amount of daylight that we receive in the summer. This change is then reset every autumn, back to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), for the winter
Due to the UK’s location in the northern hemisphere we have variations in sunlight duration and intensity throughout the year. These variations bring changes in the temperature and weather conditions - commonly known as the four seasons.
In summer, the UK has a maximum of 16 hours and 50 minutes of daylight, in comparison to a mere eight hours in the winter. This means we often wake up in the morning and finish work in the evening in the dark. The move to British Summer Time is designed to help ensure that people are awake later to enjoy the most of Summery daylight hour.
Do I need to reset my phone?
On Sunday, BST for Brits will officially start at 2am, when the clocks will jump forward to 3am. This change is timed to ensure minimal disruption to people’s lives as most people are asleep.
Although our digital clocks - such as those on our phones - will change automatically, we will have to remember to manually reset any clocks around the house. This may seem like a bit of a nuisance for us but be glad you are not the Queen’s timekeeper who will spend 40 hours resetting over 1,500 timepieces at the Royal residences.
We’ve got a British builder called William Willet to thank for British Summer Time. In 1907, Willett self-published a pamphlet on the idea, called ‘The Waste of Daylight’, which advocated that, by aligning work hours closer to the sunrise, more people would be encouraged to participate in outdoor activities - whilst keeping them out of the pub. But it wasn’t until 1916 that the UK adopted BST in order to aid the First World War effort. The change allowed munition and agricultural workers to work later into the evenings, increasing productivity.
DST is observed in over 80 countries around the world, including Russia, the USA, Australia, and the European Union. However, because each country has differing geography and time zones, the dates of when they move between DST and their Standard Time is slightly different. The date for the US Daylight Savings Time Spring change is traditionally two weeks before the UK.
The impact of Daylight Savings Time on our sleep
It might seem like a fairly inconsequential loss of an hours sleep, but the effects of Daylight Savings Time go far beyond feeling a little sluggish.
Each one of us runs on our own unique ‘body clock’ - our internal timing device which regulates our biological functions, including metabolism, body temperature and mood. But the most obvious influence is on our sleep and wake cycle. These timings, known as our circadian rhythm, determine when our biological functions kick into action, and run according to a 24-hour cycle.
By moving our societal clocks forwards each Spring and backwards each Autumn, we create an irregular gap between our individual body clocks and the societal clock governing our daily lives. This mismatch is known as Social Jet Lag - and is a real catalyst for disturbed sleep, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
All of our biological rhythms are synced to the outside world by daylight.Any changes between our internal rhythms and the outside world can lead to circadian rhythm disruption and an increase in sleep deprivation.
Circadian rhythm disruption is frequently present in our modern 24-hour society and has been suggested to contribute to various metabolic and cardiovascular diseases and neuropsychiatric disorders.
The problems with Daylight Savings Time - time to change?
In recent years a large body of scientific research has developed, exploring the wide-reaching effects of the hour increase in the Spring.
Indeed, the effect of DST on human health has been linked to an increased risk of a number of physical and psychiatric health issues . A recent Finnish study showed elevated hospitalisations due to stroke in the first 2 days after DST.
As well as the physical health issues, several reports show that the transition from summer time to standard time in the autumn is associated with an increase in the incidence rate of unipolar depressive episodes. The sleep deprivation associated with the clocks changing has also been linked to a spike increase in road accidents in the days following the change.
Our forced change in time also impacts our societal and work-lives. Statistical analysis shows that US judges are more likely to hand out longer sentences for the same crimes in the week after the clock changes.
In the workplace, the first Monday after the Daylight Savings Time weekend is typically followed by large negative returns on financial market indices. Furthermore, in the week immediately after DST, Cyberloafing – the term for the minutes spent loafing around on social websites instead of performing a task - increases by 27% (...hands up, we’ve all been guilty…).
The future of Daylight savings?
All of these factors led to a call from leading scientists to abolish DST in 2019, citing that almost 70% of the world does not adhere to Daylight Savings Time.
In 2018 the European Union conducted a poll asking their citizens whether to maintain or abandon biannual clock changes. This led to the largest turn out for a poll in the EU’s history. 4.6 million participants voted - although only 0.02% of the population in the UK voted -with results showing that 84% of people were in favour of abolishing the biannual clock, wanting instead to implement a Standard Time, set at winter time. After several years of debate, in 2020 the EU voted to abolish the practice of Daylight Saving Time, but it has yet to be set into practice.
In March 2021, Boris Johnson was asked by a committee of MPs if he would follow the EU in abolishing DST and become ‘the Prime Minister who kills BST?’ - to which the Prime Minister stated that it is “unlikely” that the UK would abolish BST anytime soon.
Yikes, what can I do to safeguard my sleep?
In the days leading up to the clock changes you can help prepare your body clock in a number of ways.
1. Gradually move your sleep time back
In the days before the change you can help your circadian clock anticipate the adjustment by moving your sleep time slightly earlier by 15 minutes each night, until it is aligned with the upcoming jump. For example, if you usually go to sleep at 11pm, you should aim to be asleep on Wednesday night at 10.45pm, then on Thursday 10.30pm, and Friday at 10.15pm, so by Saturday night you will be asleep by 10pm and already aligned to the change. This technique is also the best way to help negate the effects of Jet Lag when travelling.
2. Create good morning and evening routines
If you have a good morning and evening routine you are giving yourself the best chance for uninterrupted sleep and energy throughout the day. By reducing the amount of bright light you receive at night and increasing the amount of daylight you receive in the mornings you are helping your body clock realign itself with the outside world.
A good evening routine will follow the 3-2-1 rule: 3 hours before bed is your last meal, 2 hours before bed you stop work, and 1 hour before bed reduce your screen time and dim the lights around the house. In doing so, your body prepares for rest; your melatonin levels rise, facilitating the onset of sleep.
3. Set regular sleep and wake times
Keeping consistent sleep and wake times - at the weekends as well as during the week - you’re less likely to suffer the side effects of Social Jet Lag. Your body becomes accustomed to routine, knowing when to shut down for rest, as well as when to wake up refreshed.
It is a common misconception that you can ‘catch up’ on sleep by sleeping in for longer periods at the weekends. Sleep doesn’t work that way; it is not the same as saving different amounts of money on different days, and still accumulating the same amount at the end of the week. Whilst the total hours of sleep are there, the value is not the same. Sleeping in on the weekend may help you feel less drowsy and stressed out that particular day, it won’t eliminate the cumulative negative effects that recurring sleep loss has on your health.
4. Create a good sleep space
Sleep quality can really benefit from a bedroom environment designed and maintained specifically for sleep. Resist the urge to take your laptop into your bedroom and work from your bed; people who work from their bedrooms are 25% less likely to be able to detach from their work and sleep well throughout the night.
Additionally, an environment which is cool and dark (in sync with a natural outdoor nighttime)will allow your melatonin levels to peak, encouraging the onset of sleep, as well as keeping your core body temperature to stay low.
A good morning routine will also consist of a ‘photon shower’ - a hit of sunlight. Start the morning with a short walk, or simply by having breakfast by a window.