Woman in bed

Changing the way we sleep to adapt to the new world of work

26 November 2021

The recent Allianz Partner’s ‘Working From Home (WFH) Survey’ has highlighted a number of areas for development relating to working from home. One area in particular, which is crucial to health and wellbeing, is sleep. 

Being able to spend more time at home every morning and skipping the daily commute have had a positive knock-on effect on people, enabling them to sleep longer and feel more relaxed, with their sleep pattern having adjusted to the working from home routine.

The reopening of cities and workplaces means a return to the office, and for many, the return of the commute will affect these sleep habits and routines. This transition, and the need to adapt again, could have negative consequences for sleep patterns and overall health, unless some key strategies are developed and practised.

Sleep, as we all know, is essential. It is the foundational pillar of health that all others sit upon. Without it, our bodies and brains cannot recharge. Without adequate sleep, we run the risk of decreasing our ability to learn properly. Our memory and cognition are reduced. Our immune system can be impacted increasing the risk of illness, and it has an impact on different parts of our body, including our organs.

When we get good quality adequate sleep, our physical, mental and emotional health is boosted and we can operate at our best. 

When we sleep, we enter two essential phases; non rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM).

During NREM sleep, our bodies wind down and fall into a deep sleep state in which we physically heal, and our immune system gets a boost to help fight off illness.

During REM sleep, our brain activity increases. This is the phase responsible for increased memory and learning. It is during REM sleep that most of our dreaming takes place, and it is essential that we get adequate time in this phase throughout the night.

The general recommendations for sleep quantity tend to be 7-8 hours a night for an average adult; but, according to sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker, author of the international bestseller Why We Sleep (2017), we should be aiming for 8 hours a night for optimal quantity. Walker also points out that unfortunately too many people are not getting this amount.

Furthermore, whilst quantity is important, we can’t forget quality, and there are many aspects of our day-to-day lives that we can take ownership of to ensure that quality sleep is being achieved.

The sleep-wake cycle refers to the pattern of time we spend awake and asleep every 24 hours. This pattern is one of the body’s many ‘circadian rhythms’, the rhythms that indicate time to sleep like day and night light. The most significant role of the sleep-wake cycle is to consolidate sleep during the night, helping you to stay awake during the day. It must also be kept in balance and an overly inconsistent bedtime or morning schedule can disrupt this balance.

One of the key takeaways from the WFH survey, in relation to sleep, was that respondents were planning their sleep routine better. This idea, coupled with the fact that social activity was reduced on weekends due to the closure of bars, restaurants, nightclubs etc., potentially allowed respondents to adhere to a more balanced and consistent sleep-wake cycle. This balance could also be why respondents reported feeling physically well in the survey.

Now that restrictions are easing, many of us will engage in activities which lead to a less consistent sleep-wake cycle, including the return to working in cities and offices. It is crucial that we respect the power of a balanced sleep-wake cycle by aiming to get to bed and to rise on a consistent schedule, even on the weekends where possible. While this might flex a little on office and non-office mornings, going to bed at the same time each night is an easy way to maintain consistency. 

Getting daily sunlight exposure is important in the regulation of sleep. Even on a cloudy day, exposure will have a positive impact, and Dr. Matthew Walker suggests a minimum of 30 minutes per day. For those working remotely, why not take some time in the mornings to get some sun exposure or over lunch with a walk? Even regular breaks in the garden help. For those returning to the office, it’s just as important to ensure that regular outdoor breaks are taken, in addition to aiming to walk or cycle to work where possible.

Caffeine is the world’s most consumed psychoactive drug. It works by blocking certain receptors in the brain which, in turn, increases alertness and has mood-enhancing effects. Caffeine can stay in the system for a lot longer than you might think. It has a half-life of around 5 hours in the average adult, which means 50% of the caffeine we consume is still circulating in our system 5 hours after consumption.

Caffeine in the system can disrupt our sleep quality and decrease the amount of restorative deep sleep we get, making us wake feeling less refreshed. This, in turn, increases our desire to consume that cup of coffee which will make us feel more normal again. A bit of a Catch 22!

So, to avoid this cycle, we can start by limiting our caffeine intake. The earlier in the day we consume it the better, and the less of it, the better. Switching to decaf and herbal teas for the remainder of the day is a helpful solution which means you won’t miss out on the positive, social aspect of going for a coffee with a friend or colleague.

We are aware that regular exercise and movement is extremely beneficial for our health but when it comes to sleep, it gets interesting. Exercising can have a positive impact on stress levels and help with sleep quality, but some individuals can have disrupted sleep from exercising later in the evening.  Incorporating your exercise regime earlier in the day is a good idea, and if you want to exercise in the evening, opt for more gentle forms such as yoga or a walk.

Ultimately, it takes listening to your own body when it comes to exercise and sleep. Take note of how your sleep is affected when you exercise, and make an informed decision regarding when you exercise.

Illuminated streets, rooms and technology are part of our modern world. The amount of time we spend looking at screens in both the remote and working worlds is significant. Many of us continue to stare at screens after work, either on our phones or at the TV.

Artificial light can disrupt our circadian rhythm and the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Reducing artificial light exposure later in the evening will promote a better sleep. If you are working late, using some blue-light blocking glasses can help. There are also apps for your computer which can reduce the light disruption from the screen. This is especially important if you return to a brightly lit office space.

Having your bedroom as dark as possible will also help with sleep quality. Consider investing in blackout blinds or curtains to enjoy a dark night’s sleep, even in summer months.

Aside from artificial light, the distracting nature of technology - social media, emails, messaging - can interfere with your ability to mentally switch off, and impact sleep quality. Try to leave the smartphones, laptops and tablets outside the bedroom if possible. 
As well as limiting the light in your bedroom, keeping it cool has proven significant in improving sleep quality. Ensure the room is well ventilated and that there is fresh air coming in. Opening the windows wide for an hour before bed can ensure you enter a cool bedroom before you sleep. You may even want to switch to a thinner blanket in warmer months. 
Although it might seem to counter the idea of having a cool bedroom , having a hot bath before bed can actually help with your sleep. Aside from the relaxing experience of a bath, warming your head, hands and feet can draw heat away from your core, and thus lower your core temperature for a good night’s sleep.

Although the ‘Working from Home (WFH) Survey’ showed us that the participants had an overall positive association with sleep, their food habits were negatively impacted. To ensure adequate sleep quantity, eating light in the evening is recommended. Food quality is also significant. Heavy fats and fried foods are not ideal, while light meals including nutrient dense, low calorie foods are more optimal. Some studies even suggest more fibre in the evening meal is better for sleep than low fibre meals. To help you maintain a healthy balanced diet, download the Allianz Partners Feel Good Food e-book filled with wholesome recipes for a happy, healthy working week.

When returning to cities and office spaces, keep in mind the importance of access to nutritious lunches and snacks. Preparing these in advance can help, in addition to taking time to eat them during the day. When we are busy, we can forget to eat, which can lead to strong cravings when we get home and the temptation to make unhealthy eating choices. Many popular takeaway foods can be heavy, and disruptive to sleep, while one of the advantages of remote working is having more time to prepare home-cooked meals. 

Although alcohol can initially give us the feeling of winding down after a busy day, it is actually disruptive to sleep. Alcohol can disrupt the healthy REM sleep our brain requires. If you do end up having alcohol in the evening, drink some water before you go to bed, but do not overdo it as it will cause you to wake up to use the bathroom.

The temptation to have a few drinks after work is there for many when we return to cities and offices; and of course, there is an important social aspect to this which has been difficult during the pandemic. If you join some friends or colleagues for drinks after work, try to choose more non-alcoholic options than alcoholic options, and drink water. 

A lack of magnesium in the diet can also impair sleep. Ensure your diet includes some magnesium-rich foods. If you struggle to get enough in your diet, consider a good quality magnesium supplement, but consult your healthcare provider first before taking any nutritional supplement.

Sleep is a vital part of the foundation for good health and wellbeing throughout our lifetime. Working from home has enabled many of us to make healthier sleep-related choices and the transition back to cities and workplaces doesn’t need to spell the end of these. Consider implementing one, many or all of the above tips in your new routine and reap the health benefits.

For more information visit the Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home Survey