The remote-work shift that began in 2020 had massive effects from the workplace to individual health. Learn more about how working from home impacts the quality of your sleep and a few things you can do about it. 

The remote work shift that happened (and is still happening) during the pandemic has massively changed almost every aspect of life in the United States and beyond.  

1. Changing routines

Whether you’re a creature of habit or a free spirit, sleeping well is all about having a consistent routine. When that routine gets changed (for example, you have to wake up early for an appointment or you go out with friends and come home MUCH later than your usual bedtime), you experience a little bit of an upset. Maybe you sleep later than you like, maybe you’re more tired than usual, it all depends. But one-night blips won’t completely change your internal clock. 

However, the remote work shift has completely upended routines for two years. That’s not just a blip – that’s creating an entirely new routine, almost at the drop of a hat. 

While the shift to remote work allowed for many workers to be more flexible between work and social endeavors, creating new routines means an adjustment period. If you don’t have to commute or take your kids to school, then theoretically you can stay up past your normal “bedtime” that your body was used to pre-pandemic.

On top of changing routines related to sleep, the pandemic forced immense changes to everyday routines. Everyday people watched the news like hawks, anxiously awaiting updates and more information about the virus. People cleaned surfaces, wiped down groceries, and changed and showered after coming home from work. Some workers in highly public essential jobs even quarantined themselves from family members. That much change, all at once, caused a massive amount of stress for people. We’ll talk more about the connections between stress and sleep later this month. 

But suffice to say, all of these changed routines and the anxiety they caused took a HUGE toll on the sleep schedules of many workers. See the graphic below, sourced from information published by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, to understand how drastic those changes have been:

2. Less movement

The typical office rigamarole of commuting, wandering between cubicles, going to lunch, going to meetings, gathering at the water cooler, etc., means that, even if your job was primarily sedentary, you were still getting up to move once in a while. 

But since the pandemic started, remote workers simply haven’t had to move as much. For remote workers, sometimes “the office” and “the bedroom” are the same room. There’s no reason to get up and go to meetings or visit your cubicle neighbors, since you’ll be Zooming or emailing your coworkers anyway. Very few leave their homes to seek out lunchtime grub. Some people report sitting for up to seven hours, nearly straight, for their new workday. 

In an article from Advances in Preventive Medicine, studies tend to show that in middle-aged and elderly adults, exercise of any kind (no matter the method or intensity) improves the amount of time in bed that we spend asleep (aka, sleep efficiency) AND the quality of that sleep. Since you have more energy when you feel well-rested, these connections between sleep and exercise can be cyclical and build on one another over time. 

And you can bet that the reverse is true – a lack of exercise or decrease in movement results in poorer-quality sleep, even if you’ve still got the mental strain from working all day. Mental fatigue doesn’t help sleep in the same way that physical exercise does. 

3. Difficulty separating work and personal life

Pre-pandemic, most people worked in a place separate from their home. When you have the physical barrier between work and home, the distinction between the two is easier to make. You don’t always have to watch your work emails, you don’t always have to answer those work-related calls. And since working hours were set, a worker could feel comfortable ignoring those outside-of-business-hours calls and requests. 

All that division and those healthy boundaries go out the window when you work in the same place – sometimes, the same room – where you sleep. Those changed routines and increased flexibility could easily become a hindrance, since remote workers can have difficulty walking away from the stress that work brings. 

In an article from SleepCycle, there are additional concerns for parents: trying to provide childcare while working often leads to frequent interruptions, which means less productivity, which leads to longer working hours (because you feel like you didn’t get enough done during the day), which often leads to less sleep.

What can you do about it?

With all of these changes, it becomes even more important to find a routine. The upheaval of routines might even have made room for newer, healthier routines to take root. One of the good things about a healthy sleep schedule is that it’s trainable. When applied with consistency, you might find that some of these methods for creating and maintaining healthy sleep schedules could work for you: 

  • Set designated working hours and stick to them
  • Find time to move or exercise
  • Get some sunlight
  • Eat and drink foods carefully: avoid spicy/fatty foods before bedtime, limit caffeine and alcohol (especially later in the day).
  • Figure out your body’s natural circadian rhythm and stick to it
  • Create a wind-down routine to let your body learn that it’s time to sleep
  • DON’T sleep where you work, if it can be avoided

Stay tuned as we’ll cover more on sleep and stress later this month!


Sources:

https://www.sleepcycle.com/sleep-habits-and-health/remote-work-impact-sleep/#:~:text=When%20you%20don’t%20feel,%2C%20finances%2C%20and%20the%20pandemic.

https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/wellness-prevention/still-working-from-home-try-these-5-tips-improve-your-sleep

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28458924/

https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/10.5664/jcsm.8800

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-faqs

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/how-working-from-home-has-changed-sleep