Labor Day is coming up in a few days, a chance for most of us to take a last little summer break before fall gets underway. My family will be sticking close to home, relaxing at the beach and getting together with friends for dinner on the patio in the evening.
Labor Day honors the contributions of workers to American life. With that in mind, it seemed like a good time to talk about work and sleep. I’ve written a lot about the effects of poor quality and disrupted sleep on work performance. Poor sleep reduces productivity and increases absenteeism. It dampens creativity and innovative thinking and hampers teamwork. It gets in the way of good, effective leadership. Poor sleep’s effect on work life also has a profound impact on the economy, spiking health care costs, and generating billions in losses from missed workdays and reduced productivity.
These are just some of the ways sleep affects work. Today, I thought we’d look at how work affects sleep.
Tension between work life and healthy sleep isn’t new, of course. But work has changed over the past several decades—including how and when we do it. And the pace of changes to work life have increased in more recent years, as technology speeds up and transforms our world at an ever-faster rate. More than ever before, we live in an always-open-for-business world—and that poses uniquely modern challenges for sleep.
What are the “best” and “worst” sleeping jobs?
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control released a report that analyzed sleep duration by occupation. The study looked at how likely workers within different industries are to sleep less than 7 hours a night.
What were the highest sleeping industries and jobs?
Agriculture. Farming, Fishing, and Forestry topped the list, with the highest percentage of workers sleeping 7 or more hours a night. This includes jobs in agricultural production, fishing and hunting, and conservation workers.
Education. Teachers, librarians, archivists and curators also ranked among the longest sleeping workers in the US.
Community and Social Services. Social workers, counselors, and religious workers followed educators in their relatively high ranking for sleep duration.
What were the industries at the low end of the sleep scale?
Manufacturing. Plant and production workers in textiles, woodworking, metal, plastics, printing and food production were the most likely to sleep less than 7 hours nightly. More than 44 percent of workers in production industries fail to get 7 hours of nightly rest.
Healthcare. Healthcare support workers, including nurses, home health aides, healthcare support workers, and occupational and physical therapists, were the second-lowest sleeping industry, followed closely by healthcare practitioners.
Food preparation and food services. Waitstaff, cooks, and other food service workers ranked as the third lowest-sleeping industry, with more than 42 percent of employees sleeping less than 7 hours a night.
Protective services. More than 42 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and first responders don’t get 7 hours of sleep nightly, according to the CDC report.
One broad takeaway from the CDC report? There are a lot of working adults across all industries who aren’t getting enough sleep. The study found more than 36 percent of all workers sleeping less than 7 hours a night.
Another thing many workers have in common? Trading work for sleep. Work is THE primary activity that crowds out time and opportunity for sleep in our daily schedule. That’s a research-backed finding. Recent studies found that people who sleep less than 6 hours a night work more than 1.5 additional hours on weekdays, and nearly 2 additional hours on weekends and holidays. Short sleepers also start work earlier and end workdays later.
How does your work life affect your sleep?
The demands of work appear to be increasing for everyone. At the same time, the daily patterns of work—the how and especially the when and where—are growing more diverse. See if you recognize your own work schedule in any of these common employment situations and learn about the specific sleep challenges associated with them.
You work remotely
Telecommuting has a number of upsides, for employers and employees, both. But more restful sleep doesn’t appear to be one of them. Recent research suggests telecommuters are more likely to experience stress and insomnia than office-based workers. About 42 percent of home-based employees said they wake up frequently throughout the night—that’s a hallmark symptom of insomnia—compared to 29 percent of employees who head out to an office for the day.
Telecommuting has been shown to boost productivity and job performance and give workers a stronger sense of satisfaction about their work-life balance. At the same time, telecommuters are more likely to work when they’re sick, and on vacation. They’re also more likely to work unpaid overtime.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Establishing clear boundaries between work and the rest of life is essential for telecommuters. That’s especially true regarding sleep. When home is also your work space, it can be tough to leave work for the day and relax in the evening. Try establishing specific rituals for ending the workday—shutting down your computer, stashing your phone for the evening, taking an early evening walk to signal your mind and body that you’re off the clock.
Talk to a self-employed person and they’ll tell you: the line between work-life balance can become very blurry. Whether you’re running your own business or working as a freelancer, stepping away from work is notoriously difficult for these workers.
Studies show self-employed workers are less likely to be short sleepers than employees who work for others. The sleep hazards in self-employment appear lie more with sleep quality.
People who are self-employed report feeling very high levels of pressure and stress. They often say they end their days feeling exhausted. The self-employed often carry a sense of perpetual strain, and say that worries keep them awake at night. They’re also more likely to place a higher emphasis on work than on relaxation and leisure.
That “always-on” state is tough on sleep. A racing mind and the physical symptoms of stress and hyper-arousal can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. I have more than a few self-employed patients who wake up very early in the morning, their minds leaping ahead into the day. (I wrote recently about the reasons for waking too early and what you can do about them.)
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Schedule downtime. Whether it’s regular weekends off, stopping work at 6 p.m., or taking periodic longer breaks for vacation, self-employed shouldn’t mean always on the clock. Be a good boss to yourself, and make yourself step away from work. Exercise, mindfulness routines, and a consistent Power Down Hour™ can help reduce the hyper-arousal that stems from being constantly in work mode.
You work a side hustle
Multiple job holders—about 10 percent of working adults in the U.S.—struggle with both the quality and quantity of their sleep. They face both a time crunch that stems from juggling multiple work schedules, and have difficulty finding time to relax.
These workers are the most likely group to sleep less than 6 hours a night, according to research. Multiple job holders are more likely to work odd hours, to have less time for relaxation. Research shows they average of 45 minutes less sleep than single job holders on weeknights, and an average 62 minutes less sleep on weekends. They face higher risks for injury and excessive daytime fatigue.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: A dual strategy to get more sleep and make it higher quality sleep is in order for these folks. People working multiple jobs may need to add strategic naps to their routine, to make up for not having the time and opportunity to do all their sleeping at night. Naps can round out a healthful sleep schedule, but they need to be well timed. Check out these tips for napping well. Guarding against over-reliance on stimulants, including and especially caffeine, is also important, both for sleep quantity and sleep quality.
You’re a shift worker
Take a look back at that list of shortest sleeping industries, and you’ll see that there’s a lot of shift work jobs within them: manufacturing, law enforcement, health care, food service. Nurses and doctors, health care aides, firefighters and police, production workers and restaurant employees are among the 15 million or more Americans who work shifts.
Shift workers work outside the traditional 9 to 5 workday schedule. They may work nights, or early mornings, or a combination of rotating shifts that include both days and nights. These workers face especially high risks for disrupted, poor quality, and insufficient sleep, and excessive daytime fatigue. Frequently tired, and needing to be productive during hours when the body is naturally inclined to sleep, shift workers face elevated risks for accident and injury. Over the long-term, shift workers are at increased risk for a number of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers.
An underlying sleep issue for shift workers? Disruptions to circadian rhythms that arise from their irregular sleep schedules. An estimated 5-10 percent of shift workers suffer from circadian rhythm sleep disorder, which includes both extreme tiredness and persistent difficulty sleeping.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Shift works who work long shifts or overnight shifts should explore the possibility of taking naps while on the job. Studies show napping can help restore lost sleep during overnight shift work. Bright light therapy has also been shown to help shift workers align their sleep cycles with their non-traditional work schedules, making it easier for them to sleep when they need to. If possible, limit long commutes, especially if you’re driving, rather than taking public transportation. And schedule enough time between shifts to get sufficient rest. This can be a challenge for shift workers, who understandably want to spend time with family and friends when they’re not at work, rather than sleeping. But protecting sufficient time for sleep is critical to the health of these relationships, as well as to your individual health, safety, and daily functioning.
You’re a high earner
Think making more money means getting more sleep? Think again. The National Bureau of Economic Research has tracked earnings and sleep amounts for decades, and consistently found that adults in the highest earning households sleep about 40 minutes less a night than workers at the lower end of the income spectrum.
That’s not to say that low socioeconomic individuals and families have an easy road to sleep. They don’t. Low income adults and children are more likely to sleep poorly than those in higher income households. Poverty affects risks for stress, depression, food and housing scarcity and instability—all factors that can contribute to sleep and other health issues.
Why do high earners sleep less? Some economists posit that the motivation (and perhaps the pressure) of a high salary make people more willing to work longer hours, to the point of regularly reducing sleep. I see this in my work with CEOs and business executives a lot. I also see this de-prioritizing of sleep linked to a misguided belief that sleep is somehow optional, and that will and drive can compensate for regular, high-quality rest. They can’t.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Let go of the myth that going without sleep is a sign of strength and talent. Accept that the sleep rules apply to you. With the exception of a very tiny number of genetically-determined short sleepers, the rest of us need somewhere in the range of 7-9 hours of sleep a night to stay healthy. Recognize sleep for what it really is: an investment in your ability to perform at your best.
You’re an unpaid caregiver
This sector of our workforce gets overlooked too often. More than 43 million adults in the United States are currently working as unpaid, informal caregivers. These are people caring for partners, parents, other family, friends, and neighbors. Their work contributes more than $470 billion to the U.S. economy—and contributes immeasurably to the lives of the people they care for.
Often, unpaid caregivers are also in the paid workforce, juggling jobs alongside their caregiving duties. Caregivers face sleep and health risks that don’t get enough attention. A new, large-scale study found that caregivers experience high rates of insomnia and other sleep problems, and that the risk for sleep problems increases alongside the amount of time spent in unpaid caregiving. Other recent research found that more than three-quarters of caregivers report sleeping poorly—and that women caregivers are much more likely to face sleep problems than their male counterparts.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Studies show mindfulness-based exercises and cognitive therapy can help caregivers improve sleep, reduce stress, anxiety, isolation and their sense of burden, and improve quality of life. And caregivers need regular respite, to relax, unwind, and rest. Developing support networks that can allow caregivers to take regular breaks from their work are important to avoiding exhaustion, overwhelm, and stress than can interfere with sleep.
I hope this upcoming long weekend finds you relaxing and sleeping well!
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™