Sleep Well Despite Poor Work Conditions

Stressors 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 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.

Sleep at College: Here’s How to Get Enough

Off to college soon (or know of someone who is)? You’re probably looking forward to interesting classes, good friends, and the freedom to live away from the prying eyes of Mom and Dad. Heady prospects, all three! But you’ll also face some challenges. Getting enough sleep may be one.

But college life doesn’t have to be disruptive to sleep. By planning ahead, you can get the sleep you need whether you’re inclined to get up early or burn the midnight oil. Here’s what you can to do get a better night’s sleep away from home.

Make sure you sleep well at collegeOff to college soon (or know of someone who is)? You’re probably looking forward to interesting classes, good friends, and the freedom to live away from the prying eyes of Mom and Dad. Heady prospects, all three! But you’ll also face some challenges. Getting enough sleep may be one.

Sleep at college was a challenge for me: growing up in a quiet home, prone to occasional bouts of insomnia, I was unprepared for life in a dormitory. The dorm was a place where rock music and partying ruled—no matter that some of us had early morning classes. Often I struggled with insomnia. That I could see, the world was divided into two tribes: early risers and night owls. Living so close together was a pain in the neck!

College life doesn’t have to be so disruptive to sleep. By planning ahead, you can get the sleep you need whether you’re inclined to get up early or burn the midnight oil. Laura McMullen in US News & World Report recently offered advice on how to sleep well at college. Here’s mine.

If You’re an Early Riser

Especially if you’re a light sleeper or one who needs a solid 8 to 9 hours, you’ll need to be prepared to deal with unwanted noise at night. You can

  • Arm yourself with silicone earplugs
  • Use a device that creates white noise. Small fans work well, as do white noise generators that can be purchased online or at stores like Best Buy. My brother swears by his SleepPhones, also available online.

A bigger challenge for early risers may be negotiating with roommates for the conditions you need to get a good night’s sleep.

  • Be up front about the situation from the start. Tell your roommates you’ve got an early class and need the place to be quiet and dark by 11 p.m. Ask them please to text rather than talk on the phone, or to wear a headphone while watching TV.
  • If friendly negotiations don’t do the trick, then request a move–the sooner, the better. Ideally you’ll know of another person looking for an early-bird roommate or someone who’s likely to be considerate of your needs. If not, interview prospective roommates about their habits at night. Given a choice of location, avoid rooms near high-traffic areas like bathrooms and stairways.

If You’re a Night Owl

Noise won’t be such a problem if you’re naturally inclined to stay up late. But you may find that your sleep preferences are out of sync with daily life on campus. Your circadian rhythms are delayed, so you’ll tend to be sound asleep when early morning classes begin and you may not feel truly alert until much later in the day. (A young night owl I know claims he doesn’t really hit his stride until 6 p.m.)

To get the sleep you need and feel alert during the day,

  • Make strategic use of bright light. Light is your friend in the morning but a foe at night. When you get up in the morning, open the curtains and turn on the lights. Spend time outside if you can. In the evening, keep lighting low. Avoid computer screens and other light-emitting devices for an hour or two before going to bed.
  • Check with your doctor about using over-the-counter melatonin supplements. Taken around dinnertime, they enable people to fall asleep earlier than normal—at midnight, for example, rather than 1 or 2 a.m. (For details, see this blog or watch this video trailer.)
  • Schedule your classes later in the day. If you slept through 8 o’clock classes in high school, chances are you’ll sleep through early morning classes at college. You may be older, but circadian rhythms remain fairly consistent.

Arrange for active days and restful nights as best you can. If you still find yourself dropping off to sleep in class, catch some shut-eye in the middle of the afternoon. Ten- to 30-minute naps can do wonders for your stamina and put you on top of your game.

Cats Do It. How Come We Can’t?

People who know I’ve written a book on insomnia often talk to me about their sleep. I hear lots of interesting observations, but sometimes people who complain about sleep have mistaken notions about how to improve it.

If you struggle with insomnia, take care to avoid falling into these two TRAPS.

Avoid going to bed too early and sleeping late on weekendsPeople who know I’ve written a book on insomnia often talk to me about their sleep. I hear lots of interesting observations, but sometimes people who complain about sleep have mistaken notions about how to improve it.

If you struggle with insomnia, take care to avoid falling into these two TRAPS:

1) Habitually going to bed early in an effort to get more sleep. As a rule, this is a bad strategy for people who have insomnia. A certain amount of sleep pressure has to build up every day before your brain is ready for sleep. Going to bed before your brain reaches this point sets you up to lie in bed awake, which creates anxiety and problems getting to sleep.

A better strategy—paradoxical as it may sound—is to stay up a little later than normal (while still getting up at your customary time in the morning). With the extra build-up of sleep pressure, you’re apt to fall asleep more quickly and sleep right through the night.

2) Sleeping late on weekends to catch up on lost sleep. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule isn’t always possible. Your inclination, after a late night out, is to want to sleep in. Good sleepers regularly catch up on lost sleep by sleeping late on weekends at no cost to themselves.

But people prone to insomnia have to be careful about when and how we catch up on lost sleep. Sleeping more than an hour (some experts say 30 minutes) later than usual in the morning can interfere with circadian rhythms and the build-up of sleep pressure that occurs during the day.

If you need to make up for lost sleep, it’s better to do so by going to bed earlier the following evening rather than sleeping late in the morning.

How do you catch up on lost sleep?