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The Medical Minute: When working from home equals lack of sleep

PHOTO COURTESY PENN STATE HEALTH Working from home has changed the way many people sleep.

UNIVERSITY PARK — For more than half of American workers, home and work now are one and the same. And while the stay-at-home orders that created millions of work-from-home jobs overnight reduced the potential spread of COVID-19, they also brought an unexpected side effect: a change in sleep habits.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in reports of stress-related insomnia in recent months,” said Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, a clinical psychologist, sleep researcher and director of the accredited behavioral sleep medicine program at Penn State Health Sleep Research and Treatment Center. The cause is two-fold. One is due to pandemic-related stress and uncertainty; the other is due to the newness of working from home.

“Many people have found that they can do their job remotely very well because it’s mostly done on a computer,” Fernandez-Mendoza said. However, few people received any remote work training prior to the start of the pandemic. In the rush to adjust, some people made choices that are leaving them bleary-eyed morning, noon and night. Others are further stressed by the increased responsibilities of having the whole family at home.

Try these nine tips to reclaim a good night’s sleep and establish a better work-home balance:

1. Develop a daily routine. Doing regular tasks — waking up, taking a shower, eating regular meals, engaging in leisure activities, going to sleep — at set times each day helps regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). “Sticking with regular habits keeps your circadian rhythm anchored like a boat in the ocean,” Fernandez-Mendoza said. It’s OK to sleep in one day a week or change things up a little, but the more consistent people’s routines are, the more they’ll improve their sleep quality.

2. Separate “work space” from “sleep space.” Reserve the bedroom for two activities: sleep and sex. Keep electronics out of the bedroom. Choose another room for work, even if it is not a formal office.

3. Bring in the light. Keep your workspace brightly lit during daylight hours by opening curtains and blinds. Absorb as much natural daylight as possible. At night, draw the blinds and keep the lights dimmer for at least two hours before bedtime.

4. Step away from the computer. Build in 15-minute breaks during the workday for leisure time. Take a walk, enjoy a favorite activity or just take a coffee break — though don’t drink coffee too late in the day. Stay hydrated. Consider spending time outdoors in the daylight.

5. Set boundaries. Limit the amount of time you spend checking email or work-related texts to work hours, if at all possible. Set a work-from-home schedule in agreement with your employer and use autoreply to tell co-workers or clients they’ll receive a reply to overnight emails in the morning.

6. Plan “constructive worry time.” Many people jump from work to dinner without talking about their day — and then wonder why they can’t sleep at night. That’s why Fernandez-Mendoza recommends planning “constructive worry time.” Set aside 15 minutes two hours before bed each night. Write 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,” Fernandez-Mendoza said.

7. Stay physically and mentally active. Take time to partake in activities you enjoy–reading a book, writing, talking with family members or even playing video games. (Just remember to cut off all screen time two hours before bed). Also, prioritize physical activity, which can include things like walking to the grocery store; more active people tend to sleep better.

8. Get other family members on board. If the parents’ bedtime is 10 p.m. but their teenager’s bedtime is 1 a.m., sleep problems may result in both parties. Try to find middle ground by adapting everyone’s sleep schedule to the new circumstances.

9. Don’t stir in bed at night. If you can’t initiate or resume sleep within 20 minutes, get up, go to another room and enjoy a quiet activity, such as reading. Return to the bedroom once you feel sleepy again and repeat as many times as necessary. “Staying awake in bed fuels sleeplessness and can lead to developing chronic insomnia,” Fernandez-Mendoza warned.

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