Beginning work too early can cause sleep deprivation, according to an expert / Tuomas Marttila/REX

The problem is an international one, said Dr Kelley of Oxford University

A leading academic has called for dramatic changes to be made to working hours to stop children and adults from being forced to function in a “sleep-deprived society”, which is tantamount to torture.

Dr Paul Kelley, of Oxford University's Sleep and Circadian Institute, said that an adult’s circadian rhythm is out of tune with regular 9 to 5 working hours until they are 55 - around a decade before the end of the average working life.

The circadian rhythm determines sleep-wake patterns over 24 hour periods, and is driven by exposure to light entering the eyes. Via a non-visual pathway to the brain, the system regulates a host of biological mechanisms and genes.

As patterns change at different ages and workers “cannot change” their 24-hours rhythms, adults become exhausted and ill, he told the British Science a Festival in Bradford.

Similarly, children and teenagers do not function correctly as the latter should start and end the day later than either young children or middle aged adults.

“By the time you are 20, 19 or 18 you're getting up and going to sleep up to three hours later. It's natural and uncontrollable in the sense that you cannot change it," he said.

Describing the problem as an “international issue,” Dr Kelley said that current patterns are "hugely damaging" and affect “physical, emotional and performance systems”.

Such patterns increase the risk of diabetes and schizophrenia, said Dr Kelley, adding that it was no coincident that 70 per cent of mental illnesses start between the ages of around 11 and 24.

A societal change could see students improve their grades, and boost the health and output of employees, Dr Kelley suggested.

"Sleep deprivation is a torture. Thirty days without sleep and you die. It has about the same effect as not eating," he said.

"Staff should start at 10am. You don't get back to [the 9am] starting point until 55. Staff are usually sleep-deprived. We've got a sleep-deprived society."


Dr Kelley recently launched the biggest study yet into the effects of different starting hours on children.

The team are asking 100 schools across the country to come forward to take part in the study, which will see ten year olds starting at 9am and 15 year olds starting at 10am.

“The science of it says they will perform better,” said Dr Kelley. “They will sleep more, they'll have less stress and anxiety, and a lower rate of drug up-take both legal and illegal. I can't predict how much it will improve their GCSE results but I would put money on it being a statistically significant positive change.”

He added: “The opportunities are fantastic .. we have the opportunity to do something that will benefit millions, billions of people on Earth.”

Additional reporting by PA