Are you losing sleep over work?

Many blame their jobs for a bad night’s sleep.

11 ways to banish the "midnight blues" and get a restful respite.

Updated 1 April 2016

“’Tis now the very witching time of night,” we hear young Hamlet say in Shakespeare’s play. He’s referring to the hour of midnight, when witches were thought to be most active and supernatural forces at their most powerful.

For modern-day workers, the small hours between midnight and about 3am are when some find themselves wide awake, alone in the dark, with work and life worries closing in.

National and international studies indicate they are not alone.

“About a third of the population report having trouble sleeping,” says Nicholas Glozier, professor of psychological medicine at the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney. “About 10 per cent suffer from a sleep disorder.”

Many blame their jobs for a bad night’s sleep. Indeed, research by think tank The Australia Institute has found that more than half of Australia’s workers are unhappy with their working hours and an estimated 2.9 million lose sleep because of work stress.

"After the first couple of weeks of this pattern, it became apparent that my wife didn’t want to talk about my ideas in the middle of the night and the iPad was banned from the bedroom." – Travis Osborne 

It is well established that sufficient sleep is necessary to be able to work safely and effectively. The reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine and the Challenger space shuttle disaster are examples of what can happen when workers are short on sleep.

Melanie Zander (formerly Jenkins) CPA, mother of two and owner of MJ Accountants and Business Advice in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, sees a direct correlation between the quality of her sleep and business cycles.

“With the rapid growth of my business my sleep has died off,” Zander says. “I fall asleep OK at night, but tend to wake early at about 1am or 2am, then toss and turn. If I start to think about work I find it really difficult to get back to sleep.”

Higher education, higher income, longer work hours, older age, being a carer or having two or more children in the household are all associated with shorter sleep, according to PhD research conducted by scholar Yu Sun Bin at the University of Sydney.

But when does less sleep become too little? “How much sleep is needed to function well depends on the individual, but in general there is an increased risk to health and wellbeing at less than six to six and a half hours sleep per night,” Glozier says.

Bin’s research indicates that we seem to be lying in bed long enough – eight and a half hours on average. And just 4.5 per cent of Australians sleep six hours or less, compared with 9.4 per cent in the US.

But night vision into the bedrooms of maxed-out workers would reveal scenes less than restful. According to research by Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation, a third of those it recently surveyed said they had a sleep disorder, while 23 per cent said they didn’t get enough sleep.

Clearly quality of sleep matters just as much as quantity.

Travis Osborne, who founded Mobile Tyre Shop in 2012 and later found fame of sorts by featuring on Channel 10’s reality show for entrepreneurs, “Shark Tank”, says he suffered “start-up insomnia” for 12 months during the launch of his venture.

“After doing some work once the children were in bed I watched television from 10.30pm to relax my mind and went to bed about midnight", he says. "I was generally exhausted so I'd go straight to sleep, but then wake at about 4am. It took another half-hour to go back to sleep and then I'd wake up to the alarm at six [already] feeling tired, A coffee would get me going and it all started again.

“After the first couple of weeks of this pattern, it became apparent that my wife didn’t want to talk about my ideas in the middle of the night and the iPad was banned from the bedroom.”

Glozier says it’s normal to wake a few times each night and to worry about work sometimes, given how much time we spend doing it. It’s what we think on waking that determines if it’s a problem. Worrying obsessively about lack of sleep can actually make sleeplessness worse, he says.

Zander has trained herself out of negative thinking when she awakens at night. “As soon as I think ‘Oh no, I have to get up soon,’ it’s so much worse", she says.

"So now I try not to look at the clock, or if I do know the time I turn it into a positive and say, ‘Great ! I’ve got a whole extra hour in bed’.”

“With the rapid growth of my business my sleep has died off.” Melanie Zander CPA

Just the number of hours we spend at work affects how much sleep we get. For example a British study has found, that people working 55 hours a week rather than 35 to 40 are twice as likely to sleep less than six hours, nearly four times as likely to have trouble going to sleep and twice as likely not to feel refreshed the next day.

The ability to stop thinking about work during free time – known as psychological detachment – may be even more important than workload, research suggests.

Eugenie and Shane Pepper both have demanding jobs running their baby and kids’ fashion and accessories business, Plum, while raising a young family.

“I get stressed over all the details of work and while I can fall asleep OK, I am jolted awake by what feels like a surge of adrenaline at about 3am,” Eugenie reveals.

“My husband can be stressed, but it doesn’t stop him sleeping. The minute he puts his head on the pillow, he’s asleep. I think the key is that Shane exercises every day and has the ability to switch off.

“I’d love to exercise more, but it’s hard to make time with young children. I also like to talk about our business at home, whereas Shane makes the switch and doesn’t want to talk shop.”

Being awake during the witching hour is often a bleak experience – problems loom larger and darker than in daylight. Yet it can also be distraction-free time when some do their best thinking.

“As soon as my head hits the pillow, all other stimuli disappear,” says restless sleeper Ashleigh McInnes, director of Melbourne-based public relations firm Papermill Media.

“Sometimes I will sit straight up in bed at 3am with an answer to a problem I’d been thinking about all day.”

Osborne says he also gets flashes of inspiration in the wee hours, so now he keeps a note pad by his bed to capture them.

Employers have a role

While it’s a worker's responsibility to get adequate sleep to be fit for work, employers also have a part to play. With loss of sleep equating to loss of brainpower, the business benefits of a well-slept workforce are obvious.

“We have a responsibility to set reasonable expectations regarding working hours and encourage conversations about sleep with staff so we can recognise if there’s a problem,” Zander says.

“This is even more important with flexible workplaces and telecommuting, where workers are responsible for their own hours. I have two remote workers who sometimes send emails late at night. I’m conscious of this and make a point of saying, ‘I notice you were working quite late, but I don’t expect that’.”

Glozier suggests organisational interventions to restrict long working hours stretching over extended periods, such as limiting continual overtime shifts.

“Sometime people need protecting from themselves,” he says.

Educating staff about the effects of sleep deprivation and how to improve sleep quality is another role employers can play.

Seminars on sleep are among the most frequented at corporate health provider Health at Work.

“They are becoming more popular, probably because of increasing stress levels and working hours,” says Health at Work director Kristina Dalgleish.

According to Workplace Health Association of Australia CEO, Dr John Lang, “sleep is getting on the corporate agenda because companies are becoming more cognisant of the costs of stress, anxiety and depression, all of which affect sleep”.

11 ways to better sleep

1. Attitude

Value sleep. It’s as important as diet and exercise to physical and mental health, but try not to stress when you sleep poorly as this makes sleep even more elusive.

2. Regularity

Try to go to bed and get up about the same time each day. Our body clock works best with routine.

3. Food

Avoid late meals as eating too close to bedtime can cause heartburn and discomfort in the chest. Foods high in tryptophan, such as milk, yoghurt and pumpkin seeds, have a minor sedative effect.

4. Caffeine

Tea, coffee and energy drinks are high in caffeine, a stimulant that can prevent you from sleeping well. Cut down on caffeine or at least avoid it in the late afternoon.

5. Alcohol

That glass of wine you have to relax at night may make you drowsy, but it can actually also result in restless, poorer-quality sleep.

6. Exercise

Beneficial to releasing stress and increasing the amount of deep, restorative (slow wave) sleep, but don’t do it close to bedtime. Aim for at least five hours before.

7. Switching off

Create a buffer zone between work and home. If work worries persist, try to make a time at the end of your working day to reflect, debrief and make a plan of action for the next day.

8. Technology

Have a tech-free hour in the household before bed. The blue light emitted from electronic devices such as computers and mobile phones can suppress the release of the sleep‑promoting hormone melatonin. It can also stimulate thinking.

9. Light

Body clocks are cued by light about when to be alert and when to bring on sleepiness. Aim for as much natural light during the day as you can, getting outside first thing and for lunch, then reduce light exposure at night.

“Dim the brightness on your computer and consider installing the free f.lux software, which reduces the blue light emitted from the screen,” suggests Daniel Pardi, CEO of health technology company, Dan's Plan.

Amber-toned light bulbs and even amber glasses are on the market to help filter out stimulating light. If need be darken your bedroom with block-out curtains or blinds.

10. Wind down

Create an enjoyable wind‑down routine before sleep, such as a bath or shower, listening to music or practising relaxing meditation techniques.

11. If sleepless...

Don’t lie in bed too long. If you often lie there for hours before falling asleep, go to bed later. Spend only as long in bed as you sleep. Over time you’ll build up a sleep debt enabling you to fall asleep sooner.

If awake in the middle of the night for long periods, get up and do something until the next wave of sleepiness occurs.

If sleep problems persist and are interfering with your life, seek medical help. Disrupted sleep can be a symptom of depression.

Sources: Sleep Health Foundation, Professor Nicholas Glozier

"Drunk" on the job

After 17 hours of no sleep – working at 11pm after a 6am rise, for example – you’ll have the coordination, judgement and reaction time of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 per cent.

Staying awake for 20 hours equates to being intoxicated with 0.1 blood alcohol.

Who has more of a sleep problem – men or women?

Women are universally more likely to report sleep problems than men – but when men do report sleep problems, they are more serious.

The price of insomnia

Sleep disorders such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnoea cost the Australian economy more than A$5.1 billion a year in health care and indirect costs.

In addition, the reduction in quality of life caused by sleep disorders has an added equivalent cost of A$31.4 billion a year.

Sleep Health Foundation

Thea O’Connor is a health and business writer, speaker and facilitator.

Read next: 10 workplace trends of the future

Like what you're reading? Enter your email to receive the INTHEBLACK e-newsletter.
Like what you're reading? Enter your email to receive the INTHEBLACK e-newsletter.