These days during the novel coronavirus pandemic, working from the couch, kitchen table, or spare bedroom is a given for many Americans. That said, the work-from-home trend was catching on long before COVID: In 2019, 24% of employed Americans did some—or all—of their work at home during the work week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And for the most part, it’s been a positive trend.
Studies show that remote workers are more productive than their on-site counterparts. They’re also happier and more relaxed, and they stay in their jobs longer, according to a 2019 survey. After all, cutting out our commutes gives us extra time for fun—whether it’s spent hanging out with friends and family, pursuing a hobby, or simply resting and relaxing. Plus, with a flexible schedule, it may mean that we have the freedom to hit up midday yoga classes, go for long walks outside with our dogs by our side, and run errands or pick up kids from school.
But there is at least one downside: The WFH lifestyle can take a toll on our quality of sleep. Here are five common ways working from home disrupts our snooze time—along with easy fixes.
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Mistake #1: Your Schedule Goes Haywire
Commuters tend to have a set routine—they wake up, arrive at their jobs and head home at roughly the same time each day. But when we work from home, that consistency often goes out the window. Maybe we sleep in on occasion or take a break to run errands during the afternoon and then work in the evening to make up for lost time.
Here’s why that’s a problem: Our bodies are ruled by circadian rhythm, an internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Circadian rhythm works best when you have a consistent bedtime and wake-up time—you’ll find it easier to nod off, sleep deeply, and wake up refreshed. An irregular sleep schedule throws this inner clock out of whack.
What’s more, since light is a powerful driver of circadian rhythm, using our laptops during the hour before bedtime further impedes our sleep. Studies suggest that light—particularly “blue light” emitted by electronic devices—suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
“Our evolutionary programming signals to our brain to go to sleep when the sun sets and wake up when it rises,” says Dr. Stephen Lund, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute in New York City. “Light exposure in the evening is alerting—it resets your internal clock and keeps you awake.” Not to mention that it’s hard to turn off our minds in order to sleep if we’re working right before bedtime.
The Fix: Even if you’re not required to keep specific work hours, pick a bedtime and wake-up time and stick to them as much as possible (at least within a 30-minute window).
Exposure to sunlight also helps regulate your circadian rhythm. “Open the shades as soon as you get up,” Lund says. “Take a walk in the morning, and exercise outside, instead of at the gym.” During the day, work near a window or buy a lightbox, like this portable circadian LED light from SleepScore Labs, which replicates sunlight if your home doesn't get very much natural light. Sixty minutes before you hit the sack, switch off your devices and dim the lights to send your brain the message that it’s time to wind down. If you are unable to set down your devices, consider using a blue-light-blocking screen protector or trying a set of blue-light-blocking glasses.
Mistake #2: You Work in Bed
It can be tempting to fluff your pillows and stretch out on your mattress, computer propped on your lap. But as cozy and comfortable as your bed may be, using it as a workstation during the day can make it challenging to reach dreamland during the night.
“Your bed should be a calm, soothing place for sleep and intimacy,” says Lund. “Once it becomes your workspace, your brain will begin to associate it with other activities.” As a result, when you slip between the sheets at night, your brain might assume you’re about to tackle a project or hop on a video call and will get into work-mode, rather than flipping the sleepy-time switch.
But that’s not all: “Working in bed can also make you groggy and less productive because your brain is conditioned to connect your bed with laziness,” Lund says.
The Fix: Maintain boundaries between sleeping life and waking life. Change out of your pajamas and into professional clothes. Create a dedicated workspace that you use exclusively for business, whether it’s a home office, your favorite coffee shop, or even just a section of the dining table or a desk in the corner of your living room.
If you use your bed strictly for sleep, then you’ll send a strong sleep cue to your brain every time you get in it, helping you drift off with less effort.
Mistake #3: Your Caffeine Consumption Goes Up
If coffee is your lifeblood, you’re probably drinking more of it at home than you would in an office environment. “Instead of going to the break room to make a cup of coffee, people who work from home tend to brew a pot at the beginning of the day, keep it near their desk, and fill their mug constantly,” says sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of "The Power of When."
Well, heads up, java junkies: That influx of caffeine can wreak havoc on your sleep patterns. Researchers have found that caffeine acts as a stimulant by blocking the chemicals in the brain that promote sleep. Consequently, with all this extra caffeine, you may find it harder to doze off at night, you won’t slumber as soundly, and you might also wake more frequently (including to go to the bathroom—coffee is a diuretic).
The Fix: The National Sleep Foundation recommends limiting caffeine to 250 milligrams — or three eight-ounce cups—per day. So rather than brewing a full pot, make only three cups’ worth (or less, if you also consume another source of caffeine, like soda or chocolate).
“Also, since most caffeinated foods and beverages have a half-life of six to eight hours, finish it before 2:00 p.m.,” Breus says. “That way, half of it will be out of your system by bedtime.”
Mistake #4: You’re Less Active
Physical activity is important to ensure a good night’s sleep. Studies indicate that daily exercise helps you fall asleep faster and improves the quality of your slumber, while sedentary behavior is linked to decreased sleep.
Although working from home may allow you more time and flexibility to work out, Breus points out that people who don’t commute to work tend to move less overall during the day. After all, you’re not trekking from the parking lot to your building, heading out to grab lunch down the block, or walking to the conference room, break area, or a coworker’s office.
The Fix: In addition to regular exercise, find little ways to get your blood pumping. Stroll around the house when you’re on the phone, take your dog for a 10-minute walk three times a day or run up and down your stairs every hour. “I ask people to drop and give me 10 push-ups after each Zoom call,” Breus says.
Mistake #5: Happy Hour Starts Earlier
A recent study revealed that 32% of Americans are more likely to drink during working hours when they’re at home, compared to in a public workspace where they’re being monitored. And that extra alcohol can be a recipe for a restless night.
“Alcohol disrupts the brain mechanism that regulates sleep,” Lund says. “Research shows that if you drink a beverage containing an ounce of alcohol one hour before bed, you will have 15-25 more arousals during the night.” According to the National Sleep Foundation, booze also inhibits restorative REM sleep, increases snoring, and leads to more bathroom trips.
The Fix: Swap a bedtime wine or cocktail with sleep-friendly ways to unwind, like taking a 10-minute walk or meditation break. Or fix yourself a craft mocktail—they’re trending, thanks to the sober-curious movement and popular campaigns like Sober October and Dry January.
If you do imbibe alcohol in the evening, try following these guidelines: Stop drinking several hours before you hit the hay, limit yourself to two servings (“Anything more has a very detrimental effect on sleep,” Breus says) and chow down while you sip. “Food helps you metabolize alcohol more effectively, lessening its impact on sleep,” Lund says.
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