Is Lighting Making You Tired at Work?

If you remember the classic Tom Hanks movie “Joe vs. the Volcano,” you know that one reason the main character set out for a life-changing adventure was those blinking fluorescent lights in his office that he felt were just sucking the life force out of him.

If you’ve spent even one day in a work environment without natural light, then you know how the dreary indoors make your body and mind feel like it’s shutting down.

Workers exposed to natural light sleep an average of 46 minutes longer!


Tired at workThe Afternoon Slump

It turns out that the dreary feeling you get in that office isn’t just your imagination. The Interdepartmental Neuroscience program at Chicago’s Northwestern University published a study in 2013 that concluded there is a strong connection between the amount of daylight that people receive at work and their overall levels of activity, sleep and quality of life.

People who have a window in their workplace get 173 percent more exposure to white light during the work day and sleep, on average, 46 minutes longer each night.



The Delicate Sleep Cycle

People who don’t have windows in their workspace have more physical problems, more issues with sleep and don’t experience the same quality of life as people who are regularly exposed to natural light.

full spectrum light
Natural light regulates our sleep cycles

What does this have to do with being tired at work?

Our bodies have a circadian rhythm that follows a daily 24-hour cycle and reacts to the level of light within a person’s environment. When we come into contact with light, it spurs the circadian rhythms, which run important processes in our bodies:

  • Releasing hormones
  • Feeling awake or getting sleepy
  • Maintaining body temperature

When people experience disruption with their circadian rhythms, sleep disorders are common. Other related issues include:

There’s a bundle of nerve cells in your brain that serves as a central clock for your body. This is the suprachiasmatic nucleus, also known as the SCN. Located in the hypothalamus, the SCN has about 20,000 nerve cells in it.

The quality of light coming through the retina sends information to the SCN, which uses the information to manage your circadian clock. The retina tells the SCN how long your “day” and “night” is.

This information goes to the pineal gland, which controls melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep. Melatonin secretion peaks during the night and slows during the day, allowing the cycle of sleeping and waking to proceed.

So how does this relate to fluorescent light bulbs in the workplace? Well, if you’re not getting high-quality full spectrum light through your retina, your SCN doesn’t tell the pineal gland to cool it with the melatonin soon enough, and you end up feeling drowsy during the day, even after those cups of coffee.

[thrive_icon_box color=’red’ style=’1′ image=’’]Read: Zombie Nation: Fluorescent Lights Rob us of Sleep[/thrive_icon_box]

Humans and Work Lighting

fluorescent light sleep cycleIf you think about it, fluorescent lighting in work environments is quite new on the timeline of human history. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, we did our work outside when the sun was up. Candlelight allowed us to take work indoors after the sun had gone down. However, candles didn’t provide that much light, so even people working indoors tended to stay by a window and then stopped working when they ran out of light.

The incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs gave people the ability to do more work indoors without the sun. However, the light that fluorescent lights provide doesn’t illuminate as well as incandescent bulbs do. They might be cheaper, but they don’t provide the same spectrum of light as incandescent bulbs — and certainly not as much as the sun does.

Computer Screens and Lighting

If you add in the effects of computer monitors, then lighting becomes even more of a complex problem. Before computers came into the office, people used typewriters, requiring a different lighting setup. When people adjust their computer monitors incorrectly, they can end up getting too much light coming into their eyes from the screen — while the light coming down from the ceiling isn’t enough to stimulate their circadian rhythms.

One possible solution to this is choosing a light blue background color rather than white to keep eyestrain from being as much of an issue. However, that doesn’t solve the issue of the sleep cycle. So while keeping people inside under fluorescent lights might be less expensive for companies, they end up exacting a cost in terms of quality of life for people who have to work under them.

In addition to disturbing your sleep, fluorescent lights have been connected to additional unpleasant side effects, including:

  • Migraine headaches
  • Eye strain
  • Disruption of the endocrine system (meaning a poor metabolism)
  • Immune system issues
  • Heightened anxiety and stress
  • Disruption of the menstrual cycle
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Increased risk of breast cancer

A Glaring Problem with Fluorescent Lights

Another issue with fluorescent lights in an office environment is the glare created from the lighting. Glare is produced when light is scattered across the visual field. This results in a poorer quality image for the retina, causing it to try to focus more. Since your retinas are constantly overworking to establish a clear image, this can lead to eyestrain and visual fatigue. Eyestrain and visual fatigue can be huge contributors to headaches and migraines. When working in front of a computer screen, the glare from the light can bounce off of the reflective screen, compounding the issue.

Fluorescent light glare
Image: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety

You may be thinking you’ll only find relief if you try to jump into a volcano to find happiness in life. We’re certainly not saying that! However, working all day in a closed room under fluorescent lights is not the way that humanity has spent its working days until the past few decades. Finding ways to bring natural light into your life during the day will help you sleep better, feel better — and enjoy life more.


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