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Does Remote Work Affect Your Sleep?

As a remote worker and writer, I spend a fair amount of time reading articles about remote work (admittedly, about a lot more than that too). I find it to be an enjoyable way for me to learn, gather a sense of new topics and areas I may wish to delve into with further research. The fact that you’re reading this, I gather you feel similarly.

After a recent content meeting where we talked about the mental health of remote workers, touching on the effects of sleep, I came across a slew of articles discussing the negative impacts remote work has on sleep. With titles like — “Working from home could seriously mess up your sleep,” “Working From Home? Expect Sleep Trouble,” and “Working From Home Can Literally Make You Lose Sleep,” I mostly chalked them up to clickbait. 

But as I read further, I found they all linked to a 2017 study by the UN International Labour Organization which found that 42 per cent of remote workers say they wake “repeatedly” during the night, compared to 29 per cent of their co-located counterparts. 

As somewhat of an advocate for working remotely, this was really interesting to me. I generally sleep pretty well, with the exception of a few brief periods of (non-work) stress-related insomnia. If anything, removing my commute has helped me sleep better because I’m generally able to let myself sleep until I wake up naturally and start my day from there. 

The study also found that people who always work from home reported higher levels of stress to those who always worked in the office, which is a known factor for sleep quality. Though, once they compared these results to other variables they did find this to be, “partly related to the characteristics of the job (such as working hours, occupation), job intensity and the extent to which workers are obliged to work at home beyond normal working hours (supplemental telework).”

Additionally, the study found that remote workers “are happier, healthier and experience less work-life conflict and stress if they are given a substantial degree of control over where and when they work.” 

The data was now beginning to make more sense to me. 

Why is sleep more difficult for remote workers? 

These results point at some of the common struggles remote workers face. Namely enforcing boundaries between work and life and working beyond regular working hours. 

For many, this integration of work into their life is welcome as it allows them to fulfil commitments outside of work like caring responsibilities and hobbies that they may not have had the flexibility to do with a 9 am-5 pm position. Unfortunately, without careful planning, these changed working hours can make boundaries challenging to manage. For example, breaking in the afternoon to pick kids up from school and take them to sports might not have been possible while working in an office and is something that adds value to a working parents life. But making up those hours after their kids are asleep may mean they miss out on regular downtime, adding stress and subsequently affecting their sleep.

Workplace psychologist and founder of Work Life Psych, Richard Mackinnon, says remote workers may even be required to work off-hours because of co-workers in other time zones. 

“The 24/7 nature of some services around the world means that for some people, their working hours are very disrupted by having clients or colleagues who are 12 hours on the other side of the world,” he says.  

“That means they may be expected to work really early mornings and sometimes late in the evenings.”

And while they may still take breaks in the middle of the day, these requirements put a strain on a sleep routine. 

One study found that each additional hour of paid work a person engages in each day leads to an average of 10 minutes less sleep each night.

Which may explain findings from Ameri Sleep, which saw “on average, it takes [remote workers] 25 minutes to fall asleep each night. Normally, it should take a person 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep after getting in bed.”

While there seems to be a higher risk of these issues happening for remote workers, working late isn’t only happening in this work model. 

In fact, the UN study did find that people who work at home have more flexibility in their working hours, could organize their days much better, and benefited from not having to commute to work. This freedom to create a routine and environment could actually lead to even better sleep health.

Why is sleep so important?

“I think one of the nicest metaphors I’ve come across over the last couple of years describes sleep a bit like an oil change for your brain,” Richard says. “You know, it tidies it up, cleans it out, prepares it for the next day.”

While we sleep, our brains are very active. We’re solidifying memories, creating networks, and processing experiences. 

“If you have a busy day learning, that night when you’re asleep your brain is really busy taking this new information and adding it to the information that already exists there,” Richard says. 

If we don’t get enough sleep, or if our sleep is interrupted, or if it’s poor quality, it can lead to a number of problems.

A University of Chicago study looked at a group of students who slept only four hours nightly for six consecutive days. Throughout the study, the students developed higher blood pressure and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and they produced only half the usual number of antibodies to a flu vaccine. They also showed signs of insulin resistance — a condition that is the precursor of type 2 diabetes and metabolic slowdown. As soon as the students made up for the lost sleep, all changes were reversed. 

Chronic sleep debt has been found to raise the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

But there are also more immediate effects. 

“One of the things that happen to us with insufficient sleep is that it really impacts our capacity to deal effectively with our emotions,” Richard says. “Or, as someone said in a sleep workshop, I was doing the other week – you just become really cranky.”

This, of course, has fairly obvious ramifications in the workplace. 

“If a team leader is really sleep-deprived, they’re a little more emotional. They may be a bit more snappy. They’re making off-the-cuff-answers or making very abrupt decisions. It’s not going to be good for team functioning,” Richard says. 

 There are even some comparisons between the impacts of sleep loss and the impacts of alcohol on our decision making and cognition. 

“You wouldn’t want one of your team coming back after several pints of beer and operating heavy machinery; it just wouldn’t be allowed. Nor would you want them making investments or giving feedback,” Richard says. “Sleep has a similar impact on our ability to be sharp, calculated and make these good quality decisions.”

Another study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School compared groups of volunteers that slept either eight, six, four and zero-hours nightly for three days. 

They found, “over the course of two weeks, reaction times in the group that slept eight hours a night remained about the same, and their scores on the memory and cognitive tasks rose steadily. In contrast, scores for the four-hour and six-hour sleepers drew closer to those of the fourth group, whose scores had plummeted during their three days without sleep.”

After two weeks, the group who slept for four hours a night had similar cognitive results to the sleepless group after its first night awake. “Their memory scores and reaction times were about on par with those of the sleepless after their second consecutive all-nighter. The six-hour sleepers performed adequately on the cognitive test but lost ground on reaction time and memory, logging scores that approximated those of the sleepless after their first night awake.”

In addition to these results, both the six-hour and the four-hour sleepers failed to reliably report how sleepy they had become. “At the end of the study, their self-rated sleepiness scores were levelling off, even as their performance scores continued to decline.”

It’s clear that investing in sleep is important, and not just for our own wellbeing.

“Sleep deprivation doesn’t just impact ‘me’ it also impacts those around me,” Richard says.

How can remote workers cultivate better sleep?

Experiment

As with anything, sleep isn’t one size fits all. While some habits encourage sleep – and some that do the opposite – the breakdown of these for each person will look different.

“If someone is interested in comparing home working with shared office space working that would be a really interesting thing to keep an eye on,” Richard says. 

But he encourages looking at a range of variables while tracking sleep to try and create the best sleep schedule. 

“You may find you sleep better when you’re in the office, but I imagine if you go to an office, you’re walking more, you’re moving around more, and you’re probably more physical that day,” he says. “It may mean that when you get home, you leave work in the office, but for others, their boundaries between work and home are a lot more fluid.”

By tracking these other habits, you may find you’re able to sleep well working from home if you also prioritize movement or get better at switching off. 

“Experiment and see what works for you. Measure it and get a feel for it. See how tired you are in the morning and see how that changes over time,” Richard says. 

ShieldGEO’s Salesforce Developer, Jacky Lee, has always had trouble sleeping. Last year he invested in a FitBit and started tracking his sleep to try and figure out where the problem was. 

“I really wanted to know how much sleep I was actually getting and how much sleep I should be getting,” he says. 

The first factor Jacky notices was a trend of waking up at certain times throughout the night and early morning, leading to disrupted sleep. 

“[When I was] sleeping at my parent’s house, I realized that at certain times of day stuff would happen — somebody would wake up and let the dogs out, and that would wake me up,” he says. 

“I didn’t realize it, but these things would pull me out of sleep quite a lot.”

These findings encouraged him to change his environmental factors slightly — ensuring he closed his windows before going to sleep and getting new blinds to block out the early morning sun. 

Incorporate movement

Interestingly, Jacky also found he slept better on days he went into the office rather than worked from home. 

“That’s a day when I’m actually going out and being active walking around. I’m just exerting more energy,” he says. 

Richard argues that one of the best things to implement into our routines is an end-of-work walk. 

“For many of us knowledge workers, we’re very sedentary,” he says. “Insufficient exercise means we might not ever get physically tired enough to fall asleep. So we’ve got an active body and a tired mind and a mismatch between the two.”

Set boundaries between work and sleep

Admittedly, Jacky’s work from home habits weren’t the best either. 

“I would wake up and pull my laptop into bed and start working from there for a couple of hours before actually getting up,” he says.

“Of course, what I found was, I was in bed trying to sleep with my laptop open. Or I would be trying to relax – watching tv after dinner and I would have my laptop open. So, it definitely was seeping into each other when I didn’t have a place where I could consistently work or consistently sleep.”

“The guidance has been around for a long time to have a dedicated work area if you work from home and if you can’t have a dedicated work area, it’s about removing those physical things from your line of sight to signal the end of the day.” 

These habits remove visual cues that can trigger our brains to remain in a state of work, even if we’ve long-finished for the day. 

“Think of post-it notes – if something is on a bright yellow post-it note it gets our attention. Similarly, if your laptop is just lying there, you may be talking to your significant other, but your laptop is reminding you of unread emails, the argument you had with your boss, the client you’ve got to call tomorrow,” Richard says. 

“So these associations build up really quite strongly. I would argue, the last place you want to have them is in the place you want to relax in and ready for sleep.”

Tracking his sleep made Jacky more aware of these counter-intuitive habits and encouraged him to switch things up. 

Firstly, he made sure to have a clean, dedicated workspace that made him actually want to work. 

“I basically recreated my workspace at work — it’s actually neater than my workplace in the office,” Jacky says. 

“What I found was that every time I sat in my chair at my desk, it felt comfortable to start work straight away. I didn’t have to do any tidying up or set up or be distracted. I could just get stuck in.”

He says it’s worked well so far and has consistently stopped him from working from bed or the couch. 

Establish a sleep routine

Richard is an advocate for both an end-of-work routine and a sleep routine, saying that it’s these rituals that help us to get into good sleep patterns.

“Sleep doesn’t happen to us. We need to cultivate good habits to ensure sleep happens,” he says. 

“If there’s one thing that contributes to having good sleep, it’s routine. It’s boring, and it’s difficult, but it really is a simple answer — we need to have a bedtime and wake time. And we as adults don’t like that. We break our own rules all the time.”

This was definitely the case for Jacky. 

“When I was going [into the office], very rarely was I at my peak in the morning. Sometimes it would take two or three hours before I felt like I was functioning productively,” he says. 

This would often lead to stress around whether he was productive enough in the day and cause him to work late at night to make up for it. 

“Normally if I wasn’t productive I would be worrying after dinner about it — did I get enough done? Was it productive? Those thoughts would start popping up right after dinner because I have a few hours before bed where I could finish some things that were left unfinished,” he says. 

Now, Jacky doesn’t fight his natural night owl tendencies and starts work much later. 

“I don’t really have meetings in the mornings, so I make the most of that.”

Instead, he works in three blocks of time where he feels most productive. 

“Being productive helps me sleep because I’m not worrying about what I got done that day,” he says. “I can definitely switch off faster because there aren’t any nagging thoughts. I feel happy and content with my day, which helps a lot.”

The next step for Jacky is to implement more movement in his days, which he thinks would also help a lot. 

“Ideally, I would have enough exercise and physical exertion to run down my reserves and a calm mind from getting everything done,” he says. “That would be the ideal.”  

Trial and error 

Of course, as Richard mentioned, everyone is different. You may find that you’re very active every day and have a set routine but still struggling to sleep well. There are many variables that could affect your sleep. Medical conditions, stress, food and drink habits, screen time and even social pressure, could all be determining factors. 

Unfortunately, many of the coping mechanisms we turn to when feeling tired can add to our difficulty sleeping too.

“We might eat late, drink too much alcohol, have coffee late or watch too much TV,” Richard says. “Then it’s energy drinks and coffee to keep our eyes open then the hangover from that in the evening [and the cycle continues].”

But Richard ensures it’s a worthwhile goal to get it right. 

“You can feel the benefits of better sleep habits after about a week or ten days. You will feel better about things,” he says. 

“You may notice that you are more productive because you’re making less mistakes. You may have better ideas because you’re able to think more creatively.”

Final thoughts

Whether you struggle with sleep or not, as working from home increases, so does our need to self-reflect and recognise habits that may be contributing to our overall well being. Without the natural rhythms of a work day that require us to walk to the train station, break for lunch at a certain time and prompt us to finish in time for our commute home, we need to be much more intentional with how we structure our days. 

The beauty of a more flexible work model is that we can create a schedule that actually works for us rather than submits to arbitrary social requirements. So, take the time to reflect, make notes, experiment a little and be active in creating a work schedule that actually works for you and doesn’t require copious amounts of energy drinks to keep afloat.  

– Bree Caggiati

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