- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009

Attention, workaholics: Twelve hours on the job may go against Mother Nature.

Don’t fight that 5 p.m. whistle. New research from the University of Pennsylvania and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies suggests that humans are biologically hard-wired to work only eight hours a day.

The standard work cycle appears to be programmed in the genes.

“There is the possibility that there could be a biological basis to an eight-hour cycle,” said senior author John Hogenesch, an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania.

His research team focused on the “circadian clock” that coordinates human physiological and behavioral processes on a 24-hour rhythm. People anticipate changes in their environment and prepare accordingly. In the course of a day and night, thousands of genes are affected - switching on and reacting to outside stimulus with predictable regularity.

Previous research has concentrated on the 12-hour cycles governed by light and dark, which set our regular waking and sleeping hours and eating habits. When the timely inner routine gets disrupted, the body can suffer from jet lag - or worse. A compromised clock has also been linked to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, cancer and aging-related disorders.

By studying the gene activity of mice every hour for 48 hours, Mr. Hogenesch and his team were surprised to find that shorter cycles of the circadian rhythm are also biologically encoded. They found that 260 genes were activated every 12 hours.

“There is an obvious biological basis to a 12-hour rhythm. The 12-hour genes predicted dusk and dawn. These are two really, really stressful transitions that your body goes through and your mind goes through. Anybody who has young children realizes that they are more likely to cry around those times - and you’re more likely to cry with them,” Mr. Hogenesch said.

But the team also found that another set of 63 genes became active at eight-hour intervals.

It is a small finding with big implications, suggesting there is “a biological basis for the eight-hour workday,” the study said.

The study appeared in PLoS Genetics, an academic journal, and was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and other state and federal sources.

Americans, in the meantime, are almost as regular as mice in their work and sleep habits.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the average adult spends just under nine hours a day on the job.

Federal statistics appear to support the idea that the work/rest cycle is deeply ingrained.

For example, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., 94 percent of Americans are sound asleep. By 8 a.m., 76 percent is up and at ‘em with “working and work-related activities,” BLS said.

That number hits its peak - 82 percent - at 2 p.m. By 11 p.m., however, the number of those in work mode has dropped to 10 percent.

Yet some research reveals that while Americans “work” eight hours a day, they also waste a surprising amount of that time. A recent workplace study by Microsoft found that while Americans spend 45 hours on the job, 16 of those hours were “unproductive,” citing time spent at worthless meetings or coping with disorganized desks.

A combined survey from America Online and Salary.com in 2007 also found that the average worker admits to frittering away over two hours per eight-hour workday, not including lunch or scheduled breaks.

And while the eight-hour workday has become the latest talking point in genetic research, it has also crept into economic theory, at least in Japan - home to some of the biggest workaholics on the planet.

A new survey from the travel Web site Expedia found that 92 percent of Japanese workers don’t take all of their vacations. Among Americans, that number is 34 percent.

The collateral damage of such self-denial has not been lost to Japanese officials, who have started “vacation reforms” in a government-led campaign to convince workers that they can better themselves and their nation by taking a break - and spending some of their cash in the process.

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