The work landscape was just one of the many things to shift due to COVID-19.
More than one-third of the workforce in the US started working remotely between February and May 2020, resulting in 71 percent of workers working from home. Before the pandemic, only one-fifth of the labor force worked remotely.
As more evidence accumulates to how the workforce perceives this shift, we’re seeing a mix of positive and negative outcomes.
On the one hand, working from home may increase productivity, flexibility, and autonomy, improve work-life balance, reduce commuting time, expenses, and commuting-induced stress, and boost job satisfaction and morale to work.
Regardless, the majority of the workforce favor working remotely, as reports from Pew Research Center show that 54% of those working from home would choose to continue even after the pandemic.
Let’s look at how remote work impacted sleep quality plus ways to protect your sleep health while working from home.
The Relationship Between Remote Working and Sleep
A 2021 study that addressed sleep quality, depression, and anxiety in full-time remote workers found that participants who worked remotely experienced markedly high anxiety and depression symptoms and severe sleep problems.
The researchers speculate factors that may contribute to this impairment in mental and sleep health including:
- Loneliness and social isolation
- Increased workload
- Work-home interference
- Reduced physical activity
- Low exposure to daylight
- Increased exposure to blue lights at night.
Loneliness and Sleep
Evidence shows that people who work remotely typically don’t experience the same level of social interaction compared to those who work in the office. Studies suggest that people who telework report this feeling of social isolation as a major downside to working remotely.
Loneliness may affect a person’s ability to have a well-rested sleep. A study observed that hypervigilance and increased feelings of vulnerability— signs of loneliness—may contribute to symptoms of sleep problems and worsen a person’s sleep health.
According to our Sleep Uncovered report, of 2,483 people surveyed, 21% said they felt lonely most days (four to six days), while 5% said they felt lonely always. Before the pandemic, just 5% felt lonely most days, with 2% reporting feeling lonely every day.
Poor sleep quality is also associated with increased feelings of loneliness and social withdrawal, which, in turn, impairs sleep quality.
Increased Workload and Sleep
When people work from home, they may have more time to be productive. There’s less time spent on commuting and break-room-catch-ups, and more time to sit at the computer and put in the work. But because of this, the balance between work and personal life may actually skew in favor of workload over free time.
Participants of a 2020 study reported that working remotely increased their workload, mentioning that “remote work increases my working time” and “I cannot stop (working) even if I wanted to.”
This tendency to overwork when remote working may contribute to sleep problems. People may spend their off-time time staring at screens, which increases alertness and impairs sleep quantity and quality.
What’s more, a study that looked at the link between workaholism and sleep problems found that people who overwork are at an increased risk of experiencing insufficient sleep, difficulty waking up in the morning, waking up feeling groggy and tired, and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Work-Home Interference and Sleep
Working remotely may blur the lines between personal life and work life, especially for people who work in their homes.
Studies suggest that people who work from home may struggle to separate work from home life, and home life from work time. Some people may need to attend to home-related issues during work hours and may carry on their work assignments after work hours.
They may also lose tangible social schedules and experience high stress levels from being “always-on”, which may disrupt their sleep-wake cycle and result in sleep problems.
Reduced Physical Activity and Sleep
Contrary to popular belief that remote work may lead to more balance with things like exercise and rest-breaks, this may not be accurate. The Sleep Uncovered Report found our exercise levels declined during the pandemic, with 23% of respondents saying they never exercised during COVID, compared to 16% who said this prior to the pandemic.
A 2022 study that looked at the impact of working-from-home and digital device use on sleep, physical activity, and wellbeing following COVID-19 lockdown and reopening mentioned that daily step count dropped by half from 10,000 steps.
Similarly, a 2020 study on the impact of working from home during covid on physical and mental wellbeing observed that workers experienced poor physical and mental health due to low physical activity levels, poor eating habits, home distractions during work hours, and communication issues with coworkers.
Low Exposure to Sunlight and Sleep
Exposure to sunlight supports the body’s circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and other biological and behavioral processes. Sunlight increases a person’s wakefulness during the day and supports sufficient sleep at night.
On the flip side, lack of exposure to sunlight may throw off the circadian rhythm, leading to diminished sleep quality and sleep problems.
When people work from home, they may have little need to spend time outdoors, thus limiting how much sunlight they get daily.
Blue Light Exposure and Sleep
Our circadian rhythm is maximally sensitive to short-wave, bright light – particularly blue light. Devices such as computers, smartphones, tablets, and external monitors, all of which are work-from-home technologies, emit blue light, and, if bright enough and with extended use too close to the eyes before bedtime, may contribute to poor sleep quality.
When people take on work during evening hours, they may expose themselves to excessive bright blue light, which may increase their alertness and diminish their ability to wind down for sleep.
How to Support Your Sleep Health While Working Remotely
You’re not doomed to poor sleep because you work remotely. You can leverage the time you save from commuting to and from work to increase your sleep hours and partake in scheduled outdoor activities like walking and cycling.
Here are ways you can support optimal sleep even when working remotely:
- Follow a consistent sleep-wake time. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time, every morning and night, regardless of your workload or the day of the week – even on weekends! When you follow consistent sleep-wake times, you train your body always to fall asleep and wake up at set times, and you can maintain a proper sleep duration with this technique. If your sleep schedule is dictated by what time your first Zoom call begins, try to still wake at the same time, even if your first call is later in the morning.
- Avoid bright blue light for extended periods of time at least two hours before bedtime. Try following your work hours and personal time strictly, to avoid interacting with work devices towards sleep time. Invest in blue light blocking glasses for days you can’t help but work late at night to reduce exposure to these lights.
- Consider working outside of your bedroom. Try and work anywhere else besides from your bedroom, which experts recommend to be used for only sleep and relaxation. Working outside your bedroom primes your mind to see it as a sleep sanctuary, so you’re unlikely to have the urge to work whenever you step foot in the bedroom. Keeping your work in a dedicated part of the house will help you disconnect when the day is done, so you can create some semblance of ‘work is there, personal life is here’.
- Dedicate times during the week for social interactions. Working remotely gets lonely, and this feeling of loneliness may affect sleep health. Try to be intentional about dedicating yourself to activities that increase your interactions with people. If you’re still not tired of Zoom happy hours and trivia, schedule a recurring call with your colleagues to enjoy some work-free socializing, virtually. If you feel ready to congregate in person, what better time than now to enjoy an in-person gathering with your team?
- Establish work hours. You don’t have to work round the clock because you work remotely. Try to create set times dedicated exclusively for working so that you can step away from work when it’s over. Also, don’t forget to take breaks as you would if you were working in-office. You can take advantage of the digital tools at your disposal and set Do Not Disturb hours in your off time, so you don’t get notifications while sitting on your couch at 8pm. It’s important to set boundaries even with the flexibility of work-from-home.