Working From Home and Insomnia

In my sleep therapy practice and in my personal experience, I've witnessed shifts in good sleepers toward poorer sleep due to particular scenarios created by working from home.

Some people were already adjusted to working from home

People who are used to working from home seemed to suffer from these situations less than those who may have had to suddenly start working from home (as during lockdowns and when stay-at-home directives were in place during the COVID-19 pandemic).

I think this is because people who consistently and successfully worked from home have developed, over time, habits that create healthy boundaries that separate their working lives from the rest of their lives.

An abrupt change for others

People who were thrust into a working-from-home environment not only had to adapt to the stresses of a changing work environment and changed relationships between their work and their colleagues but they were also faced with "work creep."

Rather than turning off their PC at the office and physically moving away from work (if not their mental selves as well), they lost those physical and mental context switching cues that enabled them to leave their work-life behind and start their evening with their children or their family and friends.

Developing new habits

They may have found themselves starting to work before their first coffee, not having breaks or being as productive as they used to be during the day (due to endless Zoom calls or children at home), and simply not stopping work to shift gears in the evening. Going to bed with "work brain" certainly impacted people's sleep by reducing their "wind-down" time. Some people even worked from their bed, which had a long-term impact on their bed/sleep relationship.

Add these factors to the anxiety about the pandemic, and you have a recipe for developing sleeping problems in people around the world.1,2

What does the research say?

Curiously, though, the evidence is very mixed on this matter. As I researched this article, what might seem to be "common sense" or my own personal experience – that people slept less – didn't always bear out.

Crowdsourced data from people's phones in Europe and the U.S. (which were in various stages of stay-at-home/work-from-home in 2020) showed that people stayed up later but also slept more than usual.3

Less difference between weekday and weekend sleep

Some found that the difference in sleep during the week and weekend vanished.3

Staying up later makes sense in the context of working from home and not "winding down," sleeping longer may be as a result of not having to commute to work or get ready for work in the same way as when having to go to the office. This is consistent with a reduction in the difference between weekday sleep durations and weekends.

More flexible schedules and longer sleeps

Another large study of 14,000 people with an average stay-at-home/work-at-home duration of 62 days showed similar longer sleeps as a consequence of not having a strictly imposed schedule.3

It also revealed that it was exceedingly rare for people to develop anxiety-induced insomnia if they had previously worked from home, which lines up neatly with the concept and client experience that the sudden change in work style may put someone's sleep more at risk.

Gender differences in stress and insomnia

Fascinatingly, though, women are more prone to stress, anxiety, and insomnia in general. Women in Italy showed more resilience than men during this period – showing reductions in stress, anxiety, and insomnia. This was while men showed a worsening sleep quality, increased stress, and increased insomnia.4

I'm sure there are as many possible explanations for this as people are reading this; however, they were unable to confirm if this was related to occupation (or, therefore, any possible changes in work environments between the genders).

Unhelpful association can be reversed

So what explains the experiences of my clients? Large studies look at lots of people, who will all differ from one another if you look at them individually. It may be people just like those I know are part of those study groups.

For many, activities like staying in bed on the phone, laptop use in bed, and staying up late to work all contributed to weakening their previous relationship with their bed. Rather than be one of "bed and sleep," it transformed into "bed and...sometimes sleep...sometimes watch the news...sometimes write emails..."

Luckily, stimulus control (a technique from behavioural sleep medicine) helped reverse this unhelpful association for many of them, as did the management of any pre-existing anxiety.

Do you work from home? How do you set boundaries around your work and the rest of life? Does having these boundaries help your sleep?

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