Job Jitters Keeping You Up? Tips for Taking Back the Night

Whether it’s a new job or old, work can be a sleep killer. Uncover how you can stop those work nightmares in its tracks to get some uninterrupted Zzz’s.

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That new job you scored can be great for your confidence, your career advancement, and your wallet.

It can also be terrible for your sleep.

That’s because a new job — as well as the process of searching for a new job — brings uncertainties, which by their very nature, breed sleep saboteurs like anxiety and stress. Similar to first-day-of-school fears, new jobs can create worries about things like imposter syndrome and concerns about workload and colleagues. Experts call this anticipatory anxiety.

“Situations that involve stress and novelty activate brain structures involved in making our brain feel awake. This makes it harder for our internal sleep-promoting pathways to get us to sleep and keep us asleep,” says Dr. Eliot Friedman, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist with Main Line Health.

Even when a job isn’t new, it’s likely to cause you some trouble sleeping. In a recent American Academy of Sleep Medicine survey, 73% of respondents said they’ve lost sleep due to work worries. And if work can have such a profound effect on the sleep of established workers, think about what it can do to new employees, who are still learning policies, protocols, and expectations.

New-job jitters are normal, but keeping them out of your bedroom is crucial if you want to get the kind of restful sleep that helps you perform at your best 9 to 5.

How sleep quality affects your job and vice versa

Head dipping during that endless PowerPoint presentation? You’re not alone. According to a National Safety Council survey, 69% of employees are tired at work — and many of them are in jobs where being alert is crucial for their own and others’ safety.

Sleep deprivation doesn’t discriminate between old-time and new employees. But, as a fresh face on the job, a lack of sleep can impact your job performance at a time when putting your best foot forward is crucial. Sufficient sleep is essential for decision making, problem solving, and being creative, reports the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that workers who reported higher levels of trouble sleeping had higher rates of absenteeism and lower work performance ratings.

“Research has shown that a lack of sleep has an impact on our mood, alertness, and cognitive performance,” says Jennifer Mundt, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Lab and Training Program. “We’re more likely to feel irritable or down, have difficulty concentrating, and make errors. Our processing speed is also affected, which means it may take longer than usual to do a task.”

So if sleep affects your job performance, it stands to reason that your job can affect your sleep. One study looking at nurses in China that was published in the journal Medicine found that as a nurse’s job stress scores increased, their sleep quality became progressively worse. In another study looking at job stress and work, it was found that in the last month, the average American worker experienced difficulty falling asleep 5.3 days, had trouble staying asleep 6.6 days, and found it hard to wake up for work 5 days. The researchers went on to note that work overload was associated with poor sleep quality, having a job that required performing repetitive tasks led to problems getting to and staying asleep, and job autonomy seemed to make it harder to get restorative sleep.

Work stress + sleep issues = health problems

Regardless of which came first — sleep problems or work stress — your health can take a serious hit when the two collide.

One study from 2019 looked at nearly 2,000 workers with high blood pressure but no evidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes. Those who reported work stress had a 34% higher chance of dying from CVD compared to those with low work stress. Those who had sleep problems had an even higher risk. But those who had both high work stress and sleep issues were three times more likely to die of CVD than those with no work stress and good sleep.

How and why both sleep and stress impact your heart’s health can vary based on a number of factors. For starters, both chronic stress and not getting enough sleep can increase levels of stress hormones that constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure. Those stress hormones can also create inflammation in the body, which in turn can damage arteries. And anyone who’s ever been sleep deprived or stressed knows that it’s not always easy to make good health choices when you’re tired or anxious.

Putting job stress to bed: expert tips

The first step to banishing work-related stress from the bedroom, sleep specialists say, is to recognize that losing some sleep over your new job is completely normal and to be expected.

“Even changes that are good can create stress or excitement that make it hard to sleep,” notes Mundt. “So, the first thing to do is realize that short-term sleep troubles is a really normal thing we all experience when going through change or stress. When you’re starting a new job, there will be a period of learning new things and learning to navigate a new social environment, and this can be overwhelming at first. As you start to settle in and feel more comfortable, your sleep will likely return to normal.”

What other sleep tips can you try? Our sleep specialists recommend the following:

Don’t bring work to bed

As comfy as it may be, your bed is not the place to be reviewing company policies, answering emails, or generally conducting business. “It’s important to have a physical separation between work and sleep so that when you get into bed, your brain knows it’s time to sleep,” says Mundt.

Make a to-do list

One study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General compared those who took five minutes before bed to write a detailed to-do list for the next day to those who wrote about tasks they had already completed. Those who wrote the to-do list fell asleep faster than those who wrote a completed-task list. Those who wrote a more detailed to-do list got to sleep the fastest of all. One possible theory as to why a to-do list works is because the act of writing the list “off-loads” the tasks from your consciousness, so you don’t ruminate about them as you try to sleep.

For those of us who tend to overthink, Mundt also suggests a “constructive worry” or “scheduled worry” list. For each of these, she explains, you set aside time to write down everything you’re stressed about, but you only allow yourself to worry about them during the designated “worry” time.

“This helps to compartmentalize the worry,” Mundt says. “With constructive worry, there’s an additional step. For each worry, write down whether you can control it and one or two things you’ll do to manage it. For example, if you’re worried you’ll embarrass yourself by forgetting new coworkers’ names, make a plan to write down the names of everyone you meet in order to remember them for later. For worries you can’t control (like that your new coworkers won’t like you), write down how you can manage it.”

One caveat: Whichever list you decide on, compose it outside the bedroom — and not directly before sleep.

Turn off whatever device you use for work

As tempting as it may be to check in before bed, especially when you’re eager to impress, turn off your work devices before bed. “Not only will you avoid [sleep-disrupting] light exposure,” says Dr. Friedman, “but you’ll also minimize the chance of receiving an interesting or disturbing communication via email or social media that can be disturbing right before you try to initiate sleep.”

Practice good sleep hygiene

No matter what’s keeping you up at night, you’ll increase your odds of getting the rest you need by practicing what sleep specialists call sleep hygiene. For example:

In the end, though, don’t worry too much about sleep lost to your new-job jitters. Soon enough, your new job will seem old hat, and any sleep problems you encountered because of them will get an overdue pink slip.