27/05/2020

How sleep quality affects our health and work performance

We spend almost a third of our lives sleeping, but getting a good night’s rest has just as much to do with the other two-thirds of it. There is a lot that we don’t yet know about sleep. What we do know is that it is extremely crucial for our physical and mental health. Having consistent, proper rest has direct effects of improved health benefits, such as lower rates of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. It also makes a world of difference when it comes to our mental and work performance.

When there is so much at stake, it might be alarming to know that only 44% of all Singaporeans receive less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep1. In fact, a study of 43 major cities found that Singapore is actually the third most sleep-deprived city behind Japan and Seoul2. These statistics point to a long-standing culture of extended working hours and the lack of overall work-life balance. The relationship between work and sleep is undeniably interwoven, which raises the subsequent question - how is our sleep affected now that most of us are working from home?


How working from home affects sleep

When we work from home, the usual boundaries that we have between our working lives and our personal lives begin to blur as work encroaches into the home domain. For most of us, it means that it becomes harder to separate our working and non-working hours. There are no longer any clear indicators of when it is time to end work, like colleagues leaving the office, or the daily commute. Some may even feel guilty of being less productive than usual at home, even though this may not necessarily be the case. Meanwhile, our usual escapes such as outdoor activities and social life have been rendered almost non-existent by the pandemic, leaving us not much else to do but work.

As a result, this leads to many employees working longer hours at home, and also at more irregular hours, as work has become so much more accessible. In a 2020 Bloomberg article, it was found that employees work up to 3 hours more at home, because of the reasons mentioned3. Even in Singapore, psychologists at the Institute of Mental Health noted that some Singaporeans have been putting in 50-hour work weeks since the circuit breaker started, exceeding the 48 hour cap of the Ministry of Manpower’s Employment Act4.

One of the main problems with overworking is that it causes additional, unnecessary stress to build. This keeps us up at night, affecting our sleep. In the long term, it could even cause us to develop bad sleeping habits. This is backed by a study conducted by the United Nations International Labour Organisation, which found that 42% of the surveyed telecommuters woke up repeatedly at night, as compared to 29% of normal office workers . With irregular and extended working hours having such a profound impact on our sleep, it should be unsurprising to know that the reverse is just as significant.

Relationship between sleep and work performance

Sleep is crucial to almost every other aspect of our life, but none more so than our daily activities. All of us have our work routines, social life and personal time that we get through everyday. Getting through these activities effectively requires our brain and body to be rested and fresh. Having quality sleep is essential to this, as our sleep time is when our brain and body rest and recharge, allowing us to be more energetic, focused and attentive the next day. Only with this can we be more productive, efficient and creative at work, resulting in better work performance.

Conversely, poorer sleep means that the brain and body remain tired, leading to poorer memory and focus, and thus, poor work performance. Even worse, when we work slower and less productively, it goes on to create more stress and work overloads. This further exacerbates the sleep problem and creates a vicious cycle that becomes increasingly difficult to get out of.

A lack of sleep can affect our work performance in another way, through weakening our body’s immune function. This makes us more susceptible to illnesses, resulting in absenteeism due to the greater need for recuperation. Putting ourselves out of commission for some time would similarly create a backlog of work and affect our work performance. In some cases, some employees may even adhere to presenteeism , even when ill, resulting in longer recovery times and lower work productivity due to the illness.


Relationship between sleep and overall health

In fact, when it comes to physical health, sleep is not just linked to our body’s immune function. It has many other impacts on various long-term aspects of our health as well. Getting enough good quality sleep has been medically linked to a wide range of health benefits, including the following:

  • Decrease in weight gain and obesity
  • Lower risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Lower risk of cancer
  • Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Reduced risk of inflammatory bowel diseases
  • Allowing your body to heal and repair much faster

Sleep is clearly essential to us leading healthy, balanced lives. With working from home being the norm nowadays, we will have to take some simple steps to adapt our lives to ensure that our sleep quality remains unaffected.


Tips to sleep better, especially when telecommuting

The circuit breaker will come to an end eventually, and most of us will be required to get back to our daily work routines. Before then, we should be mindful of how our telecommuting activities can feed into a much larger problem of improper sleeping habits. After all, it is much easier to form good habits than break out of bad ones. The following are 5 of our top tips to help with quality sleep, especially as we continue to work from home.

  1. Avoid caffeine. This is especially important in the late afternoon, as the effects of caffeine can last for up to 12 hours, and will likely keep you up late into the night.
  2. Stop eating at least 2 hours before bedtime. Eating close to your bedtime can potentially upset your digestive system and cause you to feel bloated and uncomfortable, making it harder to drift off when it is time for bed.
  3. Put down blue light emitting devices before bedtime. Looking at devices like our phones and laptops before bed can trick our brain into thinking that it’s daytime, delaying the release of sleep-inducing melatonin, increasing alertness and even disrupting our natural sleep-wake cycles. Limiting our exposure to blue light an hour before sleeping can therefore limit its interference with quality sleep.
  4. Have strict boundaries between work and your leisure. When telecommuting, our personal and professional boundaries are only kept separate by a thin line of personal discipline. In this case, having distinctly separate areas and timings for work and rest can help our body better distinguish between when to focus and when to relax, allowing us to get a better night’s sleep.
  5. Stick to your usual routines. Keeping to our typical sleep-wake schedule will prevent our internal body clock from getting out of whack. When that happens, it can be harder to get ourselves out of bed, and it’s even harder when we don’t have to physically go into an office. Exhaustion makes it harder to perform at work, resulting in guilt outside of work that can topple the delicate work-life balance and even lead to burnout. Similarly, try not to start working right after waking up. Give yourself time to ease into the day by eating breakfast, showering and getting dressed, just like you would if you were going to an office. These routines will keep us grounded and make it much easier when it’s time to transition back to our normal working life.


Over to you

With so many different factors in our daily lives that have the ability to influence our sleep quality, it can be easier than we think to fall into bad sleeping habits. With telecommuting in the mix, blurring the distinctions between work and home life, the risk is even higher. The key to tackling this is to stay as disciplined and consistent as we can. With the pandemic forcing us to self-isolate at home, choosing to make intentional decisions to practice self-care and maintain a healthy lifestyle has become more crucial than ever. Should things get too tough, don’t hesitate to reach out and seek help from the people around you, or even us here at Cigna. As promised, we’re with you, all the way.


Resources:
1. Lim, S. (2018). Almost half of Singaporeans aren’t getting enough sleep – and a shocking number still sleep with their ‘chou chou”. Business Insider.
2. Health Hub. (2020). How does Sleep Deprivation affect You?.
3. Davis, M., & Green, J. (2020), Three Hours Longer, the Pandemic Workday Has Obliterated Work-Life Balance.
4. Lim, J. (2020). Commentary: Putting in 50 hours while WFH, it’s a struggle to draw the line between work and home. CNA.
5. Eurofound and the International Labour Office (2017), Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work

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