How Working From Home Impacts Sleep—and What to Do About It
The pandemic ushered in a lot of changes to our lives, not least of which is the way we work.
According to a recent McKinsey & Company American Opportunity Survey, 35% of Americans across all demographics and occupations say they can work from home full time, with another 23% saying they can do so on a part-time basis. That’s 92 million American workers who work remotely, in some capacity.
Working from home should—at least theoretically—give you greater flexibility when it comes to a work-life balance: no more stressful commutes, extra time to sleep in or do housework, and more time to take the dog out or have dinner with the family. Sweats and yoga pants are the new business casual. And because there’s little delineation between your home and your office, you can work a less structured schedule free of many of the interruptions that accompany working in a typical office.
But despite the advantages, creating a home office can mean compromises in other areas, especially when it comes to work-life balance and mental health. That imbalance can lead to feelings of burnout and exhaustion, as well as worsened sleep. In one survey of German workers, nearly 75% of those who work mostly from home said they felt exhausted in the past month, compared to 66% of those who work in a company office. Another study published in 2021 in the Journal of Public Health found that 74% of teleworkers experience poor sleep quality.
Whether you love it or hate it, chances are working from home is impacting your sleep—and not always for the better. Here’s why sleep is so affected—and how to cope.
Why working from home can be bad for your sleep
There are several reasons why sleep takes a hit when you work from home.
The sleep-wake schedule gets interrupted
One factor affecting sleep when you work from home is an irregular sleep-wake schedule. Without a morning commute, you may have the luxury of hitting the snooze button a few times. As good as it may feel in the moment, diverging from a set wake-up time can impact your body’s circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that regulates when you sleep and wake.
“We see these same sorts of problems when people retire,” says Dr. Clint Young, medical director of the Cone Health Sleep Disorders Program in North Carolina. “They begin to get more casual about when they get up and when they go to bed. But we do much better if we can define a distinct ‘be awake time.’ Our brains work better. Our bodies feel better. And health is overall improved.”
We are less physically active
Research shows that exercise helps improve sleep quality. And though time saved commuting could be spent fitting in exercise, one Stanford University study found that those who work at home full time sit for about two hours more a day than those who don’t work at home. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, all those walks to and from the parking lot or water cooler or cafeteria, plus getting up to walk to meetings or mingle with colleagues, really do add up to decent activity levels.
There is more sleep-disrupting screen time
According to a recent survey, at-home workers spend about two hours more than on-site ones looking at screens—12 hours and 58 minutes versus 10 hours and 52 minutes. Unfortunately, all that blue light can have a detrimental effect on your sleep. In one Harvard study, researchers found that 6.5 hours of blue light (the kind emitted by electronics, such as computer screens, smartphones and tablets) suppressed the body’s natural sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, twice as much as green light of the same brightness.
We work longer hours
When you work from home, your work is omnipresent, and the lack of physical transitions means it’s easier to work later or start working earlier. One survey conducted at the end of 2020 found that nearly 70% of respondents who had transitioned to remote work during the pandemic said they were working on the weekends. Another 45% said they worked more than eight hours a day. Even if you’re not actively working, seeing your laptop on a nightstand or a mound of paperwork on the kitchen table is a strong visual cue that work—and all its sleep-stealing stresses—are never far away.
“There can be a lot of pressure on people who work from home to always be online or
readily available,” says Kristina Lenker, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at Penn State Sleep Research and Treatment Center in Hershey, PA. “And often, the lines are blurred between work time and personal or family time. This can lead to heightened stress for lots of people.”
How to sleep better when you work from home
For all the reasons mentioned above, getting a good night’s sleep when you work from home can be challenging. But here are some expert tips to make it easier.
Stick to a consistent schedule
“Doing regular tasks, such as waking up, taking a shower, eating regular meals, engaging in leisure activities and going to sleep at set times each day, help regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle,” explains Lenker. “When your circadian rhythm is regular, you’re more likely to fall asleep and wake up at similar times each day.”
Want to get to sleep faster and stay asleep longer? Build some exercise into your day. One study looking at adolescents found that 12 weeks of exercising improved participants’ sleep continuity and sleep efficiency (total time spent asleep versus the total amount of time spent in bed). Other research looking at 22 randomized control studies found that exercise improved subjective sleep scores.
“Regular, moderate exercise can extend sleep duration, improve sleep quality and
decrease sleep onset—the time it takes to fall asleep,” says Lenker. “Exercise relieves stress and anxiety, and physical activity increases one’s sleep drive, which are reasons why exercise impacts sleep. However, a good rule of thumb is to avoid strenuous exercise within three hours of your scheduled bedtime. Working out late in the day can raise your body temperature, which in turn may impact sleep onset and how well you sleep. An exception to this is yoga or muscle relaxation exercises, which have been shown to improve sleep.”
Monitor your light
Getting outside into the daylight can be particularly beneficial to setting your sleep-wake schedule, notes Young.
“If you work away from home, you’re more likely to get early-morning exposure to sunlight, even on a gray day,” he says. “And that morning light is one of the most important clock setters. If you’re at home, even a few minutes spent walking out to the driveway to get the newspaper or standing by a window helps.”
On the flipside, darkness at night will cue your body that it’s time to sleep. Experts recommend sleeping in complete darkness—studies show that even a little light can interfere with REM sleep—and limiting the use of electronic devices like TVs, cell phones and tablets.
“It is best to put down the devices one to two hours before bed to give yourself time to unwind,” Lenker says. “Wearing blue-light filtering glasses can help, especially for people who are working on their devices later in the evening.”
Do not work in your bedroom
While not everyone has the luxury of having a dedicated space for a home office, it’s important to not make your bedroom a boardroom.
“In order to create an effective boundary between working and relaxing—thus making it
easier to sleep—create a designated workspace that you only use during working hours,” advises Lenker. “Ideally, your workspace would not be in the bedroom, but if this isn’t possible, at least avoid working from your bed. When you do so, your brain begins to associate being in bed with wakefulness instead of sleep, which in turn makes it harder to sleep.”
Compartmentalize “worry” time
It’s hard to escape your work woes when your home is your office. And worry—be it from work or something else—is a known sleep disruptor.
“Some bedtime worries are a result of keeping so busy during the day that no time is
available to deal with the worries,” comments Lenker. “Bedtime is the first opportunity that is quiet enough for your brain to try and complete its unfinished business. But planning some constructive worry time by setting aside 15 to 20 minutes at least two hours before bed each night can help. Make a list with two columns. In the first column, write the worries, issues or problems of the day or the next day. In the second column, write the three best potential solutions that come to mind. This teaches your brain to problem-solve, sends a message that the workday is done and prepares you for the next day.”