working without natural light has a negative effect on sleep and staminaStressors at work— demanding bosses, looming deadlines, performance reviews, and the like—can fuel insomnia. But low light and the timing of work can also affect sleep. Lack of exposure to sunlight on the job and night or shift work may reduce total sleep time and deprive you of energy in your waking hours.

But you may be able to manage these less-than-optimal work conditions in ways that improve both your sleep and your stamina.

Working without Natural Light

Working without the benefit of sunlight during the daytime has a surprisingly negative effect on sleep, a new study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine shows. The goal of the study was to compare the vitality and sleep of employees that worked in windowless cubicles to those of subjects whose workstations were exposed to natural light.

Not only did the 22 workers in the windowless cubicles report less activity during the daytime and poorer quality sleep. On average, they also got 46 minutes less sleep than the 27 employees who worked near windows.

Out of Sync

The timing of your workday can also interfere with your sleep. Nearly 15 million full-time American workers labor on schedules that involve night, rotating or irregular shifts, which necessitates the resetting of the body clock.

Having to work when you’d normally be asleep and to sleep when you’d normally be awake causes changes in the activity of genes, a study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows. Genes control the production of proteins, and to function optimally, protein production needs to coordinate with the natural cycle of activity and rest.

When the body clock is reset, as occurs in people who do night and shift work, the number of genes synched up to the body’s natural circadian rhythms falls rather dramatically, pushing digestive and other physiologic processes out of whack. Ten percent of shift workers are regularly diagnosed with “Shift Work Sleep Disorder”—they feel sleepy on the job and have insomnia when it’s time to sleep.

Night owls may choose to work the night shift and, given their delayed circadian rhythms, this schedule suits them to a “T.” Others fare poorly. The years when I worked a split shift were the years when my insomnia was at its worst.

What’s a Worker to Do?

If low light is a problem at work,

  • Invest in a light box and use it (for tips on how to use a light box, see my blog on winter insomnia)
  • Go outside or to sunlit parts of the building during breaks.
  • If you do work near windows, keep the blinds open and, if necessary, use anti-glare shades for computer screens.

If the timing of your workday is a problem,

  • Aim for consistency in your sleep schedule. It may be tempting to alter your sleep schedule on weekends to maximize time with family and friends. But having to readjust to your weekday schedule on Monday may leave you struggling to stay alert at work and tossing and turning in bed.
  • Manipulate your exposure to light. Bright light in the work environment will help to keep you alert and on your toes. But exposure to sunlight on your way home from work will tend to delay sleep further. If your goal is to get to sleep immediately after work, wear dark glasses on the way home.
  • Make judicious use of caffeine. Drinking coffee at the beginning of your shift should not interfere with getting to sleep when you get home. But the caffeine-sensitive will want to avoid caffeine later in the work shift. If sleepiness becomes a problem, the better strategy is to get up and move around.

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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