What Is Circadian Lighting And How Does Circadian Lighting Affect Productivity?


You wake up to a glorious sunny day and feel energized, ready to get out of bed and tackle your to-do list. The next morning, you open your window and you’re greeted to a stormy, black day. You want to crawl back under the covers and sleep. If you feel like your energy levels get directly influenced by how much light you have, it’s because they do. Thus, it’s no surprise that more offices have moved to circadian lighting. What is circadian lighting, and can it really make you more productive?

Circadian lighting is a type of lighting system that mimics real sunlight down to the color, angle, and position, thus staying in tune with our natural circadian rhythms. According to this 2019 article in Lux ReviewOpens in a new tab., the Living Lab in London moved to circadian lighting and saw an increase in office productivity by 20 percent. Other studies involving circadian or natural lighting report similar results.

In this article, we will first dive deep into the circadian rhythm, so you have a good understanding of it. Then we’ll talk about how circadian lighting plays into that rhythm and what impacts this has on our productivity. If you feel constantly in a slump except for a few hours a day, then keep reading, as you won’t want to miss this.

What Is the Circadian Rhythm?

As we said, before we can discuss the effects of circadian lighting, we should delve into the circadian rhythm. Each and every one of us has a circadian rhythm, although whether we obey it certainly depends. Many people liken the circadian rhythm to an internal clock, and we think that’s quite fitting.

This internal clock—just like one you might have on your wall, or at least on your smartphone—runs for 24 hours to correlate with the time we have in a day. It dictates when we will wake up and when we will feel tired enough to want to sleep.

Let’s say you work a nine-to-five office job, a standard schedule for many people around the world. To get ready for work, you wake up at 7:30 in the morning. You do this often enough and then you find that, to your annoyance, you still get up at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday. It’s too early and you don’t want to be awake yet, so you try to fall back asleep, but you can’t.

This frustrates you because it’s the weekend, but it happens each week anyway. If you feel like you can’t really help that you wake up at this time, that’s your circadian rhythm in action. You might also get tired at around 11 p.m. every night, again, even on weekends. Your 24-hour clock is telling you to go to bed.

The National Sleep FoundationOpens in a new tab. mentions that we generally have the most energy between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. due to our natural circadian rhythm. Now, that typically applies to adults only, and not even every adult will necessarily experience the energy shift at that time. If you work overnight hours, for instance, then your circadian rhythm would be totally different than someone with a nine-to-five job.  (Check out our related book review – Why We SleepOpens in a new tab.)

Other factors besides your job and your sleep time can also play a role on how our internal clocks work…

What Influences Our Circadian Rhythm?

Have you ever wondered how our internal clock decides that we have more energy (or less) at certain times than at others? It’s all due to the abundance of light or the lack thereof. That’s why, on a gray and rainy day, you might never feel that energy spike, even in the afternoon. It’s also why some people suggest getting blackout curtains if you find yourself unable to sleep at night.

Now, while it would be nice if external light such as the sun could be all that affects our energy levels, that’s not true. Artificial light plays a role as well. For instance, you’re having a movie night at home. You turn off all the lights. Don’t you start to feel a bit sleepy? Even when you go see a movie in theaters, sitting in the dark for hours can make you drowsy.

Besides artificial light, there’s another light source that’s maybe even more prevalent in our day-to-day lives. It’s blue light. Many devices that we use every single day emit such a light source. This includes the television. Also, there’s your smartphone, tablet, laptop, computer, and any other digital screen. So yes, pretty much all your essentials.

Now, blue light isn’t all bad. It can increase our mood, reaction times, and our attention, says this article in Harvard HealthOpens in a new tab.. That’s during the day. At night, too much blue light keeps us from sleeping. Our circadian rhythms get all screwed up as a result. Also, Harvard Health goes on to state that too much blue light could even be tied to the development of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancers.

Sleep.orgOpens in a new tab. says pretty much the same thing. When our circadian rhythms get altered too severely, we’re at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and depression.

What Other Ways Can You Change Your Circadian Rhythm?

Blue light is far from the only means of altering your circadian rhythm. Other factors can interrupt your sleep-wake cycle as well. Some of these are voluntary and others not so much.

Changing Your Schedule

Did you get a new job lately? Perhaps you start an hour earlier or later than you used to. In changing your sleep schedule, your circadian rhythm will have to update with you. Now, if you find yourself having a hard time adjusting to even a minor schedule change, that’s because it takes a little while for your circadian rhythm to settle into this new sleep-wake pattern.

You don’t even have to switch jobs to have an impact on your circadian rhythm. If you decide to start waking up earlier to go to the gym in the morning, that’s all it takes. You could still work the same hours, but you made a big enough change that your circadian rhythm will have to compensate.

Traveling

It might be fun to see the world, but flying sure does leave you feeling jetlagged. The more time zones you pass through, the more disoriented you feel. Well, it’s not just a feeling. Your circadian rhythm gets all kinds of screwy when you do that much traveling. If you can’t sleep because of jet lag, that just makes the problem worse. 

Work Design MagazineOpens in a new tab., in a 2018 article, mentions another type of jet lag: the social kind. If you stay out late on a weeknight with your friends or even binging Netflix, you don’t go to bed when you should. This can have serious effects if you do it often enough. Work Design Magazine mentions that social jet lag increases our chances of having alcohol and/or nicotine addiction, obesity, diabetes, and depression.

The publication cites a study from the American Academy of Sleep MedicineOpens in a new tab.. Even more unsettling, the researchers found a link between heart disease and social jet lag. Specifically, your chances of having heart disease go up by 11 percent for every social jet lag hour you accumulate.

Aging

The National Sleep FoundationOpens in a new tab., in another article, mentions that as we get older, our circadian rhythm can get disrupted of its own accord. Thus, it becomes harder to sleep consistently. Seniors may report less cognitive function later in the day, earlier waking schedules, and lots of exhaustion in the evening.

What Is Circadian Lighting?

We just established that blue light can not only keep you awake at night, but potentially put your health and even possibly your life at risk. Why invite more light?

Luckily, circadian lighting is nothing like blue light. With a circadian lighting system, the color, angle, and positioning of the sun get replicated indoors. The lighting system thus can keep our circadian rhythms in check.

In the morning, the circadian lighting might start off golden as the sun rises. Then it becomes brighter and whiter as the sun reaches its peak midday, and then turns gold once again as the sun begins setting.

It’s different than your standard office fluorescent lights because circadian lighting is dynamic. It turns out we need that dynamism. According to engineering resource GLUMACOpens in a new tab., when the sun changes throughout the day, the photoreceptors in our eyes track these changes. It’s specifically our eyes’ cones (we have rods as well) that do this, as these cones can detect light brightness and color shifts. The rods play a role too, determining the brightness of the sun.

Both the cones and rods work together, passing information to your brain via signals. Your brain then makes serotonin, a type of antidepressant that keeps our moods up during daylight hours. As night falls, the rods sense the decreasing light and let the brain know once again. Thus, the brain makes more melatonin.

You know serotonin manages mood, but what does melatonin do? This hormone, which comes from our pineal gland, maintains our sleeping habits. That’s why you get tired as the day goes on, especially if you go to bed at the same time every night.

GLUMAC says using circadian lighting in the office provides a slew of benefits. These include better cognitive processing, fewer accidents and errors, less hyperactivity, a better mood, more concentration, morning alertness, and—of course—more productivity.

How Does Circadian Lighting Affect Productivity?

Ah, yes, productivity. It’s something that every office wants, but the measures a company takes to achieve it can vary. While there are many ways to influence office productivity, one that you may not have thought of is the lighting in your office.

A circadian lighting system might sound like a nice option, but does it really work to make employees more productive? Absolutely, it can.

GLUMAC, in the article we linked you to before, mentions a series of studies that sought to determine the role natural light could play on productivity. Those who had sufficient natural light had better recollection of memories and mental function at a rate of 10 to 25 percent when tested.

The results go even further than that. Employees in basement offices or cubicles with no access to natural light reported poorer performance and more fatigue.

Remember, while circadian lighting isn’t quite natural light, it’s about as close to the real deal as it gets. That’s certainly the case more so than those bright, headache-inducing fluorescent bulbs in your office.

GLUMAC also cites a study from Building and Environment. This research discovered that, when patients in hospitals had more morning light, they didn’t stay in the hospital as long. Some decreased their stays by 16 percent and others as much as 41 percent. That’s saying something.

Work Design Magazine cites a CBRE Healthy OfficesOpens in a new tab. study with contributions from VU Amsterdam and the University of Twente. The data uncovered the following: when employees went to work in an office with a circadian lighting system, they did 12 percent more work than those who only had traditional office lighting. Even better, the employees with the circadian lighting said they had more energy and felt happier, too.

In the intro of this article, we linked you to a Lux Review article from May of this year. In it, Lux Review talks about the Living Lab in London, England. This Mitie office branch was designed from the ground up with productivity and employee comfort in mind. DaeWha Kang Design are responsible for the project.

The office has both Regeneration Pods and a work environment with features made of bamboo. Of course, we have to mention the lighting, which uses an astronomical clock to determine its brightness and intensity. In the morning, it’s a cooler blue. As afternoon arrives, the light brightens up and intensifies. Then, towards the end of the day, the light intensity dims but remains warm.

When University College London reviewed the effects that working in such a space could have on employees, they too found that office productivity went up. This time, it was by a rate of 20 percent.

While the productivity results differed across all the sources we discussed in this section, one thing is clear. There’s definitely more productivity to be had for those offices that want to move forward with circadian lighting systems or increasing more natural light.

Related Questions

What color light temperature is best for productivity?  Every light has its own color temperature, and this dictates the way the light looks to our eyes. Light temperature is represented as degrees Kelvin. A blue-white light has a temperature of 5,000K. Yellow-white light that’s more white than yellow has a temperature between 3,000K and 3,500K. For more yellow light, you need a temperature of roughly 2,700K.

Knowing that, what light temperature should an employer strive to achieve in your office with a circadian lighting system? Well, it will vary depending on the time of day, since a circadian lighting system mimics natural sunlight. To get sunlight at its brightest, you’d want a color temperature of somewhere in the ballpark of 5,000K for that bright, luminescent afternoon sunlight look.

How can you get circadian lighting installed in your office?  If you find your energy and productivity are way down and you think your office lighting has something to do with it, then you might want to ask your boss or manager or about them getting a circadian lighting system installed.

Start by showing them this article as well as other data, studies, and stats on the topic. Overhauling the lighting system at your office won’t come cheap, so it’s important that a company sees the benefits and perks of a circadian lighting system before starting. If you have other coworkers or colleagues who agree that your office lighting needs a change, have them pitch the idea to your boss or manager as well.

If your boss or manager is impressed and wants to move forward, they’ll pass the idea along to the HR manager. Several other key members of your company may have a hand in the decision-making as well.

Do keep in mind that a company might have to budget for such a change. Thus, it can take several months, maybe even longer, before a team comes out to install the circadian lighting system in the office.

That said, all companies should consider moving to circadian lighting systems if they don’t already have one. This benefits every employee, even those who don’t get to spend a lot of time around natural light because they lack a window in their workspace.


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