A Day in the Life

Excerpt from “Chief Wellbeing Officer” by Steven MacGregor and Rory Simpson (LID, 2018).

All Catalans have constant jetlag. Barcelona time should be the same as London time. Go ahead, look at both cities on the world map. Indeed, Madrid is even further west on the solar longitude scale and west of the Greenwich Meridian. The country owes its present position in Central European Time to a political construct, and specifically the Spanish military dictator, Francisco Franco. In 1940, he moved the clocks forward one hour in solidarity with Nazi Germany. For Spaniards still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, complaining about the time was the last thing on their minds. So they continued to eat at the same time, and 1 p.m. lunches became 2 p.m. lunches, with 8 p.m. dinners at 9 p.m. To this day, primetime TV is an unusually late hour for a European country. The working day finishes late, and sleep-deprived children don’t get to bed early enough, since they wait up until their parents are home.

I believe the professional day to be the key unit of analysis in understanding deeply our working lives. The de facto view in business is often on the business quarter or financial year, maybe even the five-year-plan, but the big picture and the bold aims and objectives contained within it are built on the success of the small stuff. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, looking at the biological and social patterns of our day will allow us to retain and nurture the human element that is required for workplace wellbeing.

Rhythms with different frequencies are found at all levels of the biological system, from the ecosystem, group, and individual to even the organ, tissue, cell, and sub-cellular levels. Such patterns are critical to the survival of the matter in question, and some of these manifestations on a human level are surprising: 

  • We are taller in the morning than in the evening (up to 2 centimeters). Over the course of a day, our cartilage compresses, mostly within our spinal column, as a result of our physical actions. Sleep allows everything to relax and fully decompress. 

  • We are physically stronger later in the day. Most athletics world records are broken in the afternoon or evening, when body temperature is highest, blood pressure is lowest, and lung function is more efficient. 

  • Our core temperature varies during the day, dipping toward bedtime. Taking a hot shower or bath before bed can aid sleep, and researchers believe that the natural dip in temperature when we get out provides an additional signal to the brain that it is time to go to sleep. Our lowest temperature occurs around 5 a.m.—does pulling the covers over in those pre-dawn hours sound familiar? 

In all cases, our connection with the natural environment is key, with the energy and cycles of the sun dictating our own daily pattern—principally that we are awake during the day when the sun is shining, and asleep at night when the sun has set. Though fluctuating height, strength, and temperature may not have much of a direct impact on work and wellbeing, other daily patterns do, including mood and energy. For example, doctors long have been aware of the link between sleep, sunlight, and mood, with research showing earlier discharge of hospitalized bipolar patients who were assigned to rooms with views of the east—presumably because the early morning light had an antidepressant effect. Research published in Science, which analyzed 509 million tweets, found users more likely to tweet upbeat, enthusiastic messages between 6 and 9 a.m.

Having our circadian rhythms out of balance can have a variety of physiological and psychological effects. Research has shown long-term night-shift workers to have a series of health issues, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. The most common experience of this for many of us, certainly for the well-traveled businessperson, is jetlag—essentially displacing our principal light-and-dark cycle. Physical tiredness and a lack of mental clarity may compromise performance and wellbeing, with cases even being found of severe depression. Many of the symptoms of jetlag are being replicated in our daily lives. Spending an excessive amount of time indoors without sufficient natural light during the day, followed by shining an excessive number of digital devices into our heads at night, results in a constant “social jetlag.” The pineal gland, positioned between our eyes, secretes melatonin, the hormone necessary for healthy sleep toward bedtime (normally starting around 9 p.m.) with the fading of the day. Shining light into the pineal gland at night can suppress the production of that melatonin. 

Resetting our natural rhythm, and, therefore, improving wellbeing and the many benefits that result, doesn’t take long. Researchers from the University of Colorado found that a weekend of camping outdoors with no exposure to artificial light reset the circadian rhythm, allowing the subjects to follow better sleep cycles on their return home.

Many may be aware of the main energy fluctuations during a day as a result of our circadian rhythm; the siesta or nap zone in the mid-afternoon now is taken seriously at some leading companies that have installed nap pods and rooms. The need to nap is not actually due to a large lunch (although it certainly can be compounded by one), but due to the fact that 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. are the lowest energy points of our day. It’s no coincidence that most suicides occur just after 3 a.m. Being aware of our higher energy states is just as important. How do you spend the pockets of time between 10 a.m. and midday, and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. when we are at our most alert? Most business cultures and individual habits result in e-mail and heavy administrative work taking up the first peak period and a home commute taking up the second. Try recording your own “energy audit” over the course of a week. When do you feel most alert and when do you have your best ideas? Are you making the most of that time? 

All of the above informs my leadership development work, running “circadian diagnostics” to improve the health and performance of senior leaders. Though the Spanish government has started a consultation on the country’s time zone, it could be that current political priorities will again mean it is forgotten. Yet the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research on the circadian rhythm shows its great importance for our modern world. It is an area I believe will become even more significant as we move further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Excerpt from “Chief Wellbeing Officer” by Steven MacGregor and Rory Simpson (LID, 2018). For more information:

Chief Wellbeing Officer on Twitter: @ChiefWBOfficer 

Chief Wellbeing Officer Podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/chief-wellbeing-officer/id1317228820?mt=2


Dr. Steven MacGregor grew up in Motherwell in the 1980s, a former industrial heartland in the West of Scotland. Pursuing a Ph.D. in Glasgow that took him to Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon, followed by teaching at IESE in Barcelona, IMD in Lausanne, and CEIBS in Shanghai, he has helped improve the health and wellbeing of more than 20,000 people worldwide through his Sustaining Executive Performance program. He founded The LAB in 2007 and has led consulting and leadership development engagements with clients including McKinsey, Salesforce, and Santander. An adjunct professor of Organizational Behavior at IE Business School in Madrid and a Visiting Fellow at the Glasgow School of Art, he is the author or co-author of six books in the last 11 years, most notably “Sustaining Executive Performance (Pearson 2015) and “Chief Wellbeing Officer (LID, 2018). A former international-level duathlete currently racing for FC Barcelona, he has trained with Olympic athletes, Tour de France cyclists, and Ironman champions, and can be found on a frequent basis running up and down the mountain overlooking the city.


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