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Sleep and Work Performance During COVID-19

May 11, 2020

Tired businesswoman sleeping on the desk in the office

Have you struggled lately with sleep and work performance? You’re not alone. My friend Jeff Scheuer, a national expert in this area, has some practical tips to help you sleep better tonight (yes, even in a pandemic) and wake up tomorrow feeling rested and refreshed.

Jeff Scheuer is the owner of Mattress To Go in Michigan. He is also the creator of Beducation, a series of educational videos and articles discussing mattresses, their componentry, and how to achieve sleep and restoration. Here is a summary of our Q&A.

What are some tips for sleeping during COVID-19?

Some people are finding it difficult to obtain quality sleep and restoration during the current Covid-19 situation. It’s not that they’re necessarily suffering from the virus, but instead having difficulty dealing with the stress of the disruption of their daily schedule, work schedule, loss of employment or business, or financial difficulty.

While the internet is rife with various sleep tips lists, I want to go over three areas that are simple to apply and are backed by scientific research. Tip of the keyboard to Dr. Amy M. Bender who recently covered these in detail.

1. De-Stress Before Bedtime.

  • Getting ready for bed isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. You want to start winding down 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, signaling your body that it’s time to shut down.
  • Keep the cell phone out of the bedroom. Research has shown mobile phone use at bedtime predicted increased fatigue, insomnia and shorter sleep duration.
  • Write a to-do list just before turning in. Research showed those listing thoughts and things to accomplish fell asleep nine minutes faster than those who listed simple completed activities lists.
  • Practice positivity. Research shows those practicing positivity fell asleep quicker, had better pre-sleep thoughts, better sleep quality and quantity and improved daytime functioning. Two excellent sleep relaxation techniques from physicist Safi Bahcall are listed here.
2. Maintain Your Regular Sleep Schedule.

Avoid the temptation to sleep in if you’ve been furloughed or are now working from home. Irregular sleep and wake patterns were found to be associated with poorer academic performance and delayed circadian and sleep/wake timing. Try to stay within 30 minutes of your normal wake up time.

It’s most important to stick to the normal wake up time over the bedtime, but you should strive for consistency in both. Grab a nap if you’re tired during the day – don’t sleep in if you’re too tired. This can also be a good time to assess your sleep schedule and adjust your bedtime to make sure you’re allowing yourself to get adequate amounts of sleep.

3. Get Morning Outdoor Light.

Outdoor light is the best cue for circadian rhythms and getting it in the morning helps set body rhythms for the day. Combining this with exercise makes this even more powerful for shifting these circadian rhythms. Outdoor lighting is hundreds of times brighter than inside light, even on an overcast day. Try to get at least 30 minutes. Research showed office workers getting more light in the morning (even sitting by an outside window) had more optimal circadian rhythms, fell asleep quicker and had better sleep quality.

We hear a lot these days about sleep and work performance. How much does work performance depend on sleep? Can you give some examples?

I think the quick and dirty answer is: a lot. There are many studies analyzing different aspects of lower amounts of sleep and obtaining poorer sleep -- and negative correlations are shown for reaction time, speed of tasks and achieving work-paced tasks. Basically, you’re probably not going to be as fast, accurate, or productive with poor sleep, especially after longer periods of sleep deprivation.

What happens when sleep deprivation and work collide? What impact does sleep deprivation have on work and productivity?

It depends upon the amount of deprivation, but overall it amounts to a workforce that is less productive and accurate as it could or should be. Sharpness on tasks that demand prolonged vigilance (which are often some very important tasks) tend to deteriorate with acute sleep loss. There’s quite a bit of study of (medical) residents on this, as they are constantly sleep-deprived, and some research has shown sleep deprivation had a significant harmful effect on performance both in efficiency and safety. I’d say the same can be applied to those of us not in the medical field. (For more about this topic, click here.)

What about deep sleep? Why is it so important? How much should we be getting? And how can we get more of it?

A joint consensus statement was recently released by leading researchers looking at recommendations for the optimal amounts of sleep, and their summary was 7 to 9 hours of sleep was appropriate to support optimal health in adults.

While this is a simplistic explanation, we sleep in 90-minutes cycle (give or take), and at the end of each cycle there is time spent in REM sleep. About 75% of our sleep time is non-REM (NREM) and 25% REM, and the stages/types of sleep within these cycles changes as the night goes on. Earlier in the night our cycle will spend more time in deeper N3 sleep, which helps with muscular recovery and regeneration.

Later at night the N3 stage is mostly eliminated and more NREM time is spent in the N2 stage, which can promote memory consolidation/retaining what was learned with new tasks. REM is characterized by intense brain activity and is where we dream and also important for memory consolidation, cognition and mood regulation. It’s important that we are able to cycle through these stages of sleep at night and get the right balance of sleep in each of these stages for overall health and restoration.

Since stay-at-home orders started, have any of the rules changed for sleep and work performance?

I’d refer to my answer about sleeping with Covid-19 and the importance of maintaining a similar sleep-wake schedule, as well as taking this time when you are working from home to analyze your sleep patterns and see where you can improve your total amount of time dedicated to sleep (adjusting your bed time), as well as tips for getting ready for bed. Also getting outside and getting bright sunlight to set your circadian rhythm.

For the millions of people working from home, is there a case to be made for taking naps? What would you recommend?

Stick to your normal wake schedule. If you're tired during the day, take a quick nap, getting up from the nap when you first awake (often just 10 to 15 minutes). Do not force yourself to go back to sleep for 3 to 4 hours. This will disrupt your sleep schedule. Then take a look at when you are going to bed and adjust your bed time a bit earlier. Also, practice techniques for winding down 60 minutes before bedtime (like the tips on page 11 of Thriving At Work).

What else can we be doing to enhance sleep and work performance?

Use this extended time at home to do a deep dive on your sleep habits. It’s a great time to adjust how you view sleep. It’s a necessity for your health and performance, just like diet and exercise. Create a new bedtime routine. Make your bedroom a sleep-friendly environment. And go to be early enough to give yourself enough time to obtain optimal restoration. Remember, how you shortchange yourself at night will absolutely be reflected in your daytime attitude and work performance.

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