Is it any wonder that remote workers have had trouble sleeping over the last year?
Researchers have long known that teleworking can disrupt sleep cycles, causing lack of focus and sleepiness during waking hours. With more than 30 percent of people working remotely during the pandemic, there is a growing need to address the issue in the workplace.
Sleep is highly affected by anxiety, uncertainty and stress, all of which have been in abundance since the arrival of Covid-19, says Cristiano Guarana, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, Indiana.
“In general, the pandemic created the perfect storm for sleep disruptions and deprivation,” Guarana said.
“The boundaries between work and home completely disappeared,” he added. “We were redefining work and redefining home. For others, their industries were completely disrupted and many, unfortunately, lost their jobs. All these changes create uncertainty, anxiety and stress, which influences not only how long we sleep, but also how well we sleep.”
Other stresses included new ways of communicating with colleagues and new methods for measuring productivity, he notes.
What’s more, when “work life and home life blend together, it can be difficult to construct a schedule that allows for consistent sleep,” said Nicole Avena, assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai Health System and a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University.
Even before Covid, research found that a higher proportion of both regular home-based teleworkers (42 percent) and those doing a lot of remote work from various locations (42 percent) reported that they woke up repeatedly during the night, according to a 2017 report published by Eurofound and the UN’s International Labour Organization. In comparison, only 29 percent of those always working at the employer’s premises reported such a high level of sleep disruption.
So, what can employers and remote employees do to promote better sleep? It starts with knowing when to disconnect and understanding the impact that a relatively new habit in the human experience — staring at digital screens at all hours of the day and night — can have on sleep.
Blue light isn’t so special
Screens emit blue light, which can disrupt the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone that controls our daily sleep-wake cycle, aka our circadian rhythm, Guarana says. During the pandemic, of course, we’ve been on our screens more than ever.
“We were working late at night because we had to help our children with their school assignments,” he said. “We watched more TV shows because our entertainment options were reduced. We were replying to text messages late at night catching up with friends. All these electronic devices emit blue light.”
Guarana also notes the occurrence of “a vicious cycle, where sleep deprivation, anxiety, uncertainty, and stress led people to consume more coffee and alcohol, which, in turn, influenced their sleep.”
Guarana recommends several techniques that organizations can promote to their remote staff to improve their sleep quality:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. Internal biological clock works best when it’s on a regular schedule.
- Sleep in a cooler bedroom set to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, if possible. The body needs to drop its internal temperature about two degrees to fall asleep and stay slumbering until morning.
- Darkness helps human bodies know it’s time to go to sleep. Avoiding digital screens for at least one hour before bedtime allows for natural melatonin production to help induce sleep.
- If a someone can’t doze off within 25 minutes of going to bed, they should get up and do something different. This will disrupt their brain’s association of bed with wakefulness. They should back to bed when they are sleepy.
- Avoid coffee in the afternoon and minimize alcohol consumption in the evening, since both can disrupt sleep.
Avena also recommends creating a workspace that is separate from sleep space.
“It is easy to bring work into bed with you, but try not to do this, as your brain will begin to associate your bed as a place where you need to be active, not rest,” she said, adding that a [dietary] supplement like melatonin also may help.
While people can improve their sleep habits to get more rest overnight, they should see a health-care provider if insomnia becomes chronic and daily activities are affected, Avena said.
“If you are not able to pay attention to your work or other responsibilities, and you see a shift in mood, these can be signs that your sleep issues are severe enough to warrant a trip to the doctor,” said Avena, who is based in New York City.
The same advice goes if you have untreated sleep apnea, Guarana advises.
Other ways employers can help
“Employers can work to set stricter work times and avoid sending work-related emails outside of ‘office hours,’” Avena suggested. “It may also be helpful to provide resources for employees to relieve stress, as work-related stress can impact sleep as well.”
In an ideal world, organizations could create different work shifts, make work scheduling more flexible or even minimize the use of night shifts, Guarana added. These could ease collaborating with colleagues across time zones as well as adapting work hours to people’s natural preferences for mornings or evenings.
Since these solutions aren’t always feasible, employers also could encourage the use of blue-light blocking glasses, Guarana says, adding that these can be particularly effective for night owls since they are more likely to have misalignments between their innate sleep cycle and the external social time.
In addition, it’s important for people to find their own routine — and remote work may benefit that, he notes.
“Some people are natural late sleepers, and they should not try to change their internal biological clock,” he said. “Working from home may have helped you to align your internal biological clock with the external social clock.”