(No) Sleeping on the job: Hybrid work and your sleep habits

Life Lessons

(No) Sleeping on the job: Hybrid work and your sleep habits

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies dispatched scores of employees with laptops in hand (and maybe even a desk chair if they were lucky) to work from home to accommodate nationwide lockdowns.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the world has changed significantly, and it’s evident that hybrid working is here to stay. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that 76% of companies surveyed in November 2021 expected hybrid working to increase compared to pre-pandemic levels.[1]

However, while employees have largely reacted positively to this new world, there is a risk that hybrid working can impact negatively on your ability to get a good night’s rest.

7 top tips to get a better night’s rest

How are hybrid workers sleeping?

The truth? Sometimes poorly.

One Australian study found that the majority of office workers reporting a dip in sleep quality in the year to June 2021, with increased fatigue and an inability to separate work and home life causing major issues with productivity.[2]

It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider that the pandemic, remote working and lockdowns have:

Increased screen time

Blue light from screens disrupts sleeping patterns by mimicking the same wavelength as daylight and throwing the body’s natural clock — the circadian rhythm — out of whack.

Blurred boundaries between work and home life

This can make it difficult to switch off and unplug from work in the evening.

Introduced technology that makes people more contactable

This means employees can receive notifications and work-related messages even outside of work hours.

Disrupted routines

According to the Sleep Foundation, consistent bedtime routines and regular sleeping and waking times support good sleep.[3] Getting up and going to sleep at different times on different days depending on whether the following day is an office day or a remote working day often therefore throws routines out of kilter.

Increased time spent indoors

Being outside exposed to daylight, especially in the morning, can support natural sleep cycle and rhythms.3

Reduced time spent moving

Exercise is key to improving sleep.[4] With shorter commutes in particular, people are often moving less while working remotely.

Increased general stress levels/anxieties

Understandably, the past two years have seen people worried about big topics, such as finances, their health and the safety of their loved ones.

The impact of poor sleep

The NHS suggests the average person needs around 8 hours of good-quality sleep each night to function properly.[5]

However, few Brits were getting this much sleep even before the pandemic. Just 14% of British adults said that they’d sleep for 8 hours per night on average over the past week in June 2019. Despite hybrid working potentially leaving more time to sleep in the mornings, this had improved only marginally, to 17%, by March 2022.[6]

Aside from the obvious fatigue and trouble focussing, there can be wider health issues stemming from prolonged poor sleep, including obesity, low immunity, reduced fertility, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes — and even a shorter life expectancy.5 On top of the health consequences, up to 20% of road crashes in the UK can be attributed in some way to fatigue.[7]

Compounding the dire health risks for sleep-deprived employees, there’s a hit to businesses in terms of productivity. Just 1-2 nights of poor sleep per week significantly increases the risk of sickness absence,[8] and poor sleep costs the UK economy 1.86% of GDP annually — equivalent to £40.84 billion of lost output in 2021.[9],[10]

How to get better sleep

There’s been an increase in demand for medical intervention to improve sleep, even though the NHS states that sleeping pills are now rarely prescribed by GPs due to side effects and the risk of dependence.

There are 11 common medications mental health charity Mind lists that are licensed for NHS doctors to prescribe for insomnia (although some also have other uses, such as antihistamines prescribed for allergies).[11] Despite the NHS saying that sleeping pills are now rarely prescribed, in the financial year 2020/21, there were 11.1 million prescriptions written in England alone for these items, an increase of almost 300,000 prescriptions on the previous year.[12]

Yet, as mentioned, the risks of resorting to sleeping tablets to get the rest we all need make it important to explore all other avenues first and leave pharmaceutical intervention as a very last resort where everything else has failed. Instead, options such as cognitive behavioural therapy or improving sleep hygiene are better first steps.

[1] Developing skills for hybrid working, Confederation of British Industry, November 2021

[2] Integrated Safety Support, June 2021

[3] Healthy sleep tips, Sleep Foundation, November 2021

[4] Insomnia, NHS

[5] Why lack of sleep is bad for your health, NHS

[6] How many hours Brits sleep a night, YouGov

[7] Driver fatigue, Brake

[8] Trouble Sleeping Associated with Lower Work Performance and Greater Healthcare Costs, Kansas State Employee Wellness Program, October 2016

[9] Why Sleep Matters: Quantifying the Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep, RAND Corporation

[10] Gross Domestic Product: chained volume measures: Seasonally adjusted (£m), Office for National Statistics, February 2022

[11] Sleeping pills and minor tranquilisers, Mind

[12] Prescription Cost Analysis (PCA) Annual Statistics, NHS Business Services Authority

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