We are less than two weeks out from a biannual exercise that everyone seems to enjoy more by complaining about the process rather than from any benefits derived from it. As happens every time this comes around on the calendar, a lot of virtual ink is going to be spilled on what it is, why we do it, and who actually benefits from it. I thought I would do all that with a business spin at the end, in keeping with this blog’s mission statement and intended audience.

What is Daylight Saving Time (DST)? Why do we do it, and is it actually good for business?

A quick note on labels before we get too far into things. Daylight Saving Time is sometimes also called daylight savings time or daylight time in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In the United Kingdom and much of the European Union the preferred term is summer time. For the purposes of today’s article, I will use Daylight Saving Time and DST interchangeably.

With that out of the way, what is it? The short answer is many countries have decided it makes sense to create one 23-hour day in the early spring and one 25-hour day in the middle of autumn, and this moves the hours of available daylight forward and backward to where they are believed to be at their greatest advantage.

Now obviously we are not changing how the Earth rotates around its axis in 24 hours. We are just talking about our clocks. One day in March we ‘Spring Forward’ our clocks by an hour, and all of a sudden where the sun was setting in the early evening, now it seems we have an extra hour of daylight. Meanwhile, that lost hour needs to be returned at some point, and so a day in early November has an ‘extra’ hour added into it where the clocks ‘Fall Back,’ which resets things to where sunrise and sunset is supposed to fall had we not all agreed to make a day shorter back in March in the first place. This also gives us a fresh start to do it all over again next year.

Why Do We Do That?

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions around why we do this, but here are two facts.

  • Most people would prefer to work and then play when the sun is up. During the Industrial Revolution most workers moved into a clock-based schedule that eventually settled into a ‘nine-to-five’ being the typical set of business hours. If sunlight can be adjusted to fall as much as possible during and immediately after the working day, that is better for the majority of people, right?
  • An argument has also been made many times —and then refuted just as many times by study after study— that DST reduces energy consumption. If you have people being active during sunlight hours, the thinking goes, then they will be consuming less than if they were doing so in the dark. This has been such a prominent part of the conversation around DST that it its first widespread temporary adoption was during the First World War in an attempt to reduce coal consumption; it only became permanent during the 1970s energy crisis, and even as recently as 2005 the George W. Bush Administration made Daylight Saving Time four weeks longer on the thinking that as much as 100,000 barrels of oil would be saved daily by shifting energy usage. The evidence seems to suggest that did not happen. People run their air conditioners and furnaces when they are hot and cold, regardless of the time of day or night.

Hold On. DST has changed?

Oh my, yes. DST has been tinkered with so much, every generation since its first adoption has seen major change. Do you remember I said there were a lot of myths and misconceptions about Daylight Saving Time? Probably one of the biggest is that we as a society are stuck with it because we have always done it, or at least that it dates back to a long time ago when it made more sense and now it is too difficult to fix.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you go looking at the history of Daylight Saving Time, you can’t go too much further back than 1895. Before that, any mention of adding and subtracting hours to a day was about rescheduling things for when the sun was up, not actually changing the time on the clocks themselves. It was a New Zealand entomologist, George Hudson, who made the first serious proposals to make summer days longer so he could collect more insects after his day job. William Willett, a British businessman, published a pamphlet in 1907 entitled, “The Waste of Daylight,” which moved the concept into the mainstream. When Germany and Austria-Hungary adopted a form of DST in April 1916 as a way to attempt to reduce coal consumption during the First World War, the United Kingdom followed suit in May, with much of its Empire and many of its allies also adopting the idea. The United States adopted it for seven months during the summer of 1918.

Most jurisdictions that had embraced the change as a wartime conservation effort set it aside after the Treaty of Versailles, but the idea was never completely abandoned. The Second World War saw almost every non-equatorial country (where the length of the day does not differ enough to be worth correcting) adopt some kind of DST, which was branded ‘War Time’ both to reinforce its patriotic necessity, and also as a suggested promise that it would not be made permanent.

After the end of the Second World War, though, many countries decided to keep the biannual time change both because people had gotten used to it, and also because the possibility of reduced energy consumption sounded good as they struggled to rebuild their shattered economies. In Canada and the United States where the economies were in a post-war boom and energy consumption was less of a pressing concern, DST was made optional, and several states and provinces opted out. Efforts were made to internationally standardize DST in 1966 and again in 1974 as a response to the Energy Crisis. As has been mentioned, a major change was made in the United States as recently as 2005 that saw Canada change its DST to match in 2007, and even now efforts are underway to change how the European Union observes their version of it.

What Other Myths and Misconceptions Are There?

In this entire column so far, have you seen me mention farmers yet? Doesn’t that seem strange, when you have almost certainly been told at some point in your life that somehow this is all about giving farmers more sunlight to do whatever it is farmers do? Someone has told you that, yes?

Well, that’s hooey.

While ‘It’s for farmers’ is one of the most common arguments in favor of DST, it should be noted that almost all of the states and provinces that have rejected DST are agricultural states where farmers make up the largest voting blocks. The prevailing wisdom there is it’s a nuisance.

Why would DST benefit a farmer? The cows need milking and the chickens feeding and the morning dew evaporates off the fields all based on the rising and the setting of the sun. That has nothing to do with whether we start calling five o’clock six o’clock for eight months out of the year or not. DST is about getting people with nine-to-five jobs as much daylight into their working and post-working hours as possible. The number of sunlit hours remains the same, regardless of the time assigned to them, and farmers will do what needs doing when they can do it, not sooner or later as pushed around by changes to the hour hand of a clock.

As long as we are debunking myths, another common argument in favor of DST is that there are health benefits. People working and playing in sunlight sounds like it should be the healthier option than if the alternative is working and playing in the dark, right? People are more likely to get some fresh air and exercise in the sunshine, and they are less likely to hurt themselves at work during the day than at night.

Well, all that may be true, but most studies looking into the health impacts of DST tell a darker story. You are much more likely to die of a heart attack in close proximity to Spring Forward and Fall Back. You are much more likely to get in a car accident when the clocks change. In fact, messing with the circadian rhythm —your internal clock that regulates sleeping and waking physiological behavior that knows intuitively how long a day is— can negatively impact fertility, mood, and energy levels. It can trigger headaches and strokes. It can leave people groggy and unable to focus, making them prime candidates for careless mishaps and mistakes of all shapes and sizes.

Almost certainly, the health cons outweigh the health pros when it comes to DST.

So Who is Actually in Favor of DST?

Now we come to the business side of things. Do you remember I promised we would get there in the beginning?

The organizations that have championed DST most prominently and effectively since it was first proposed have been chambers of commerce and other corporate interests who see the benefit of having workers at work when they are at their most productive, and then able to enjoy their free time during the day when they are more likely to engage in activities. Without being too mercenary about it, people are more likely to spend their money when they are not at home, and they are more likely to be at home when it is dark outside.

Think about how often we talk about keeping the customer in mind. Customer-centricity is a good thing, right? Businesses that focus on their customers evolving wants and needs have a competitive advantage over those that don’t. That’s self-evident.

Well, retailers would prefer you have some free time after work to do your shopping before you go home. Sporting and recreation and tourism industries tend to do much better in daylight hours too. For golf courses, as one example, as much as 10% of their revenue depends on that extra hour of daylight. Most white-collar work has seen the benefit of people arriving at the office in the morning and working through to late afternoon, so moving when 9 am and 5 pm is for eight months of the year puts the working hours in the sweet spot from spring through to fall. Going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark can be left for the cold months that already have a big holiday season in it. Those tend to be less productive months anyway, right?

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Who actively lobbies against DST? Now I am not speaking of the average person on the street who thinks it’s a hassle. Who is engaging with policymakers in an official capacity and trying to get laws changed?

I have already mentioned farmers. The agriculture sector doesn’t see a benefit and is happy to advocate for less disruption in people’s working lives. The evening entertainment sector and religious groups tend to be against it too, as strange a pairing as that may sound. It turns out people see less movies and hang out in less bars and clubs when the sun is still up, and people of faith are irritated when their prayer and fast times change, to say nothing of the dramatic drop in attendance for early-morning services that are made to take place in the dark unnecessarily.

So Does it Make Business Sense?

Having gone over all of this, would we institute Daylight Saving Time today as a brand new idea with all the pros and cons on the table for the sake of benefiting only business interests? Probably not. There is a lot of logic behind making your workers’ and customers’ prime hours sunlit hours, but a twice-yearly disruption in how everyone perceives time seems a high price to pay for uneven benefits across some commercial sectors.

As one final argument that touches a little on an earlier blog post I wrote about the possibility of a four-day work week, one of the major drawbacks of DST is that not everyone does it the same way, and so you are also disrupting and adding confusion to when you can do business with who, which is certainly a negative for productivity and efficiency.

Does that mean we will do away with DST? Almost certainly not.

We will likely continue to tinker with it. There is currently a bill passed by the US Senate whose prospects in the House of Representatives is still being debated about making Daylight Savings Time permanent, as in switching the clocks forward and never switching them back again. Whether this will go anywhere remains to be seen, but the idea of DST and the debate over its pros and cons will likely outlast us all at this point.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.