The pandemic has had a disastrous effect on our collective sleep habits. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 56% of American adults have trouble falling or staying asleep. “I’d say we’re now in an epidemic of sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Ronald Chervin, director of the Sleep Disorders Centers at the University of Michigan.
Although insomnia is one of many types of sleep disorder, poor sleep has become so pervasive that experts have coined the term “coronasomnia” to describe the phenomenon. Heightened anxiety and stress, caretaking responsibilities, and disrupted work routines: these factors and others conspire to undermine proper sleep.
If sleep disorders have multiple causes, inadequate sleep also produces multiple ripple effects, none of them good. Untreated, short-term insomnia can easily become a chronic problem that takes on a life of its own. Poor sleep undercuts our resilience and ability to handle stress and thus can adversely affect our mental health. Long-term sleep disorders can lead to metabolic issues like diabetes and even cardiovascular disease. In the age of Covid-19, it is also important to remember that poor sleep compromises our immune system.
How you sleep at night depends on your choices during the day
Developing a good routine to wind down at the end of the day and prepare for sleep (habit experts call good “sleep hygiene”) is important. However, just as critical is what you do earlier in the day—particularly how you manage your energy and how you manage stress.
Throughout the day, make mindset and behavior choices that feed your energy rather than drain it. These choices include making time for exercise, eating well, and taking breaks. Movement and meditation are my two non-negotiables; however busy my schedule, I block out time for these two enriching activities. Identify your non-negotiables, and remain committed to them.
Additionally, it is imperative to manage stress proactively with the tools and strategies that work best for you. A primary focus of my work as an executive coach and stress management workshop facilitator is to develop an individual Stress Action Plan which nips stress in the bud rather than allowing it to fester. First, identify the source of the stress, be mindful of how the stress is registering in your body and your emotions, and then focus on the aspect of the situation you can control.
If you are mindful throughout the day of managing stress and your energy, you are more likely to remain focused and effective and to put yourself in a position to turn off and wind down at the end of the day. Conversely, if you let stress build up and do not feed your energy, you will end the day with unfinished business and an unsettled mind.
Resetting your circadian clock
One reason why short-term insomnia metastasizes into chronic sleep disorder has to do with the disruption of our natural circadian rhythms, our internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every twenty-four hours. Once this internal clock gets thrown off balance, it can be difficult to reset.
Light is one of the most powerful cues for our internal clock. Getting outside and exposing yourself to natural sunlight soon after waking can go a long way toward resetting your biological clock. Conversely, weaning yourself off of bright light (including the light from electronic devices) at the end of the day is key to setting the stage for a good night’s sleep. (The body’s clock is most sensitive to light in the hour after waking and in the two hours before bedtime.)
Researchers have also found that early morning exercise can help advance your body’s clock if you have trouble getting in gear early in the day or difficulty winding down at the end of the day.
Additional habits to good sleep hygiene
Sleep likes structure, so a routine is critical to resetting our body’s clock and developing good sleep hygiene. I tell clients that the single most effective step they can take is to rise and retire at the same time each day. Prioritize consistency, even if it means waking up when you do not have to.
The American Academy of Sleep Education outlines other elements of good sleep hygiene, which include:
- establish a relaxing bedtime routine
- avoid a large meal in the hours immediately before bed, along with alcohol or caffeine
- use your bed only for sleep and sex
- limit bright lights as you approach bedtime, and wean yourself off your electric devices
- if you experience more than 20 minutes of sleeplessness (either while trying to fall asleep or in the middle of the night), get up and do something quiet and relaxing (I suggest breathing exercises or listening to binaural beats) until you feel sleepy
Women and sleep
Pandemic sleeplessness has hit women especially hard. Two recent studies have found that sleep deprivation in moms is now twice as high as it was before Covid-19; and that 53% of moms (as compared to 29% of dads) report sleep problems due to stress related to the pandemic.
The realities of working from home and the squeeze on childcare combine to force many working mothers to burn the candle at both ends. A common refrain from women is the need to stay up late (after the kids are in bed) or get up early (before the kids wake up) in order to tend to critical work tasks.
Employers should be mindful of the effect the pandemic is having on women’s sleep. They can help female employees maintain a manageable workload and disconnect from work at a reasonable hour. Sleep deprivation is not only having an adverse effect on women’s health; it is among many factors leading women to drop out of the workforce.
What business leaders can do
Business leaders can also take proactive steps to enable all employees to disconnect from work. The feeling of always having to be “on” and available is a significant driver of sleep problems.
An executive client of mine did not realize the signals he was sending to his team when he emailed them off-hours or over the weekend. He was not only modeling unhealthy behavior; he was implicitly creating the expectation that his employees needed to stay “on,” making it more difficult for them to disconnect. I first suggested that he lead by example and also unplug and, in the case that he needed to send an email during off-hours to use an automated email scheduling delivery system so his team could receive the email during regular business hours.
One of the most important things business leaders can do to promote well-being in the workplace is to normalize discussions around the things that affect your employees’ well-being—whether that be mental health or the importance of sleep. Ask your employees: “What keeps you up at night?” I recently wrote about gamifying well-being, and you can bring that approach to healthy sleep as well. Create a challenge, encouraging employees to share their favorite sleep hack, and then have everyone commit to adding one new hack to their routine.
A holistic approach to good sleep means developing a healthy bedtime routine and paying attention to all the choices we make throughout the day that either promote a good night’s sleep or detract from it. The quality of our waking hours sets the stage for the quality of our sleeping hours. Business leaders can contribute significantly to their employees’ sleep health by enabling them to manage their workload and make sure they can turn off at a reasonable hour. When we near bedtime with peace of mind, we set the stage for a good night’s sleep and a productive tomorrow.