Sleep More, Stress Less: Tips for Surviving the Modern Workplace

/ April 3, 2019

Welcome back to our regular series with certified sleep educator Terry Cralle, MS, RN. In this post, Cralle explains how workplace stress can impact sleep and how to manage stress for better rest.

More than ever before, daily life is competing for our sleep time. Thanks to an always-on society, the line between work time and off time is often blurred—emails and texts come at all hours, and many of us never really turn “off" even when we're not in the office. We work late, we work hard, and we sacrifice sleep in hopes of getting ahead. Left unchecked, your sleep/work/stress balancing act can lead to professional burnout. Here's how stress affects your sleep and your career—and what to do to manage it all.

Stress and sleep: the perfect storm

What exactly does lack of sleep have to do with stress levels? Research has demonstrated a reciprocal relationship between sleep and stress that creates the potential for a vicious cycle. Stress hormones increase when you are sleep deprived. As sleep deprivation continues, mood, outlook, and motivation deteriorate. You have trouble focusing, communicating, and performing as you should. Your patience wanes and anxiety increases, which leads to more stress.

Inadequate sleep can make it harder to cope with even minor stressors. In a study from 1997, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that study subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more angry, stressed, sad, and mentally exhausted than those with adequate sleep.

Other research has demonstrated that we perceive things as being more stressful than they really are when we are sleep deprived. And another study shows the risk of psychological stress increases by a whopping 14% for every hour of sleep lost at night.

Lack of sleep leads to professional burnout

Professional burnout goes beyond typical work-related stress. It's a state of extreme physical and mental exhaustion, and it's accompanied by feelings of cynicism and ineffectiveness.

A 2012 study of 388 people found that insufficient sleep, high work demands, and preoccupation with thoughts of work during non-working hours were risk factors for subsequent burnout. In a study of nurses, those who slept fewer than six hours per working day had a higher risk for personal burnout, job strain, work-related burnout and client-related burnout than those who slept longer than seven hours.

Related: The shift workers guide to better sleep

In another study, medical students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine identified three predictors of burnout: pathological sleepiness, sleeping less than seven hours a night, and a positive depression screening.

While the effect of burnout on the individual is indisputable, organizations whose employees suffer burnout take a major hit as well. A 2017 survey of human resource representatives conducted by Kronos revealed that burnout accounted for 20% to 50% of a company's annual employee turnover. There is no doubt that sleep deprivation comes with a high price tag, for both the individual and the workplace.

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How to manage work-related stress for better sleep

Despite the aforementioned statistics, there is good news. You can ward off burnout and work stress through a combination of sleep and stress management techniques and strategies. By being proactive, you can effectively improve sleep, avoid an overwhelming sleep/stress cycle, and increase your productivity, performance, resilience, and wellbeing. Here are some tips for doing just that:

  • Disengage from work when away from work. Limit work-related emails, texts, and phone calls. Use the Do Not Disturb mode on your phone. Research has shown that the risk of insomnia can be decreased by setting clear work-life boundaries. Checking work email during non-work hours increases anxiety, which can make sleep feel more elusive.
  • Don't make a habit of working overtime. In a study, workers who put in 48 hours or more per week had a higher prevalence of short sleep duration, poor sleep quality, and insomnia than those who worked less than 48 hours per week. You will work smarter, not harder, with sufficient sleep.
  • Seek help from a sleep specialist. Let your healthcare provider know if you suffer from insomnia, persistent sleep problems, or any sign of a sleep disorder. In a survey of 1,300 financial workers, participants with insomnia experienced a higher risk of burnout than those without. A 2017 study of firefighters found that sleep disorders increased the high risk of burnout.
  • Try a non-traditional work schedule. Ask your employer if they offer telecommuting, staggered schedules, sanctioned workplace napping, or flex time. These all may be viable, sleep-friendly options.

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