World Sleep Day: Are UK employees locked into the stress sleep cycle?

Do you wake up each morning feeling rested? Or do you drag yourself out of bed after one too many snoozes of the alarm, the incentive of early morning caffeine and the feeling that you could easily go back to bed for a nap by midday? If the latter sounds more like you, then you are not alone. It is estimated that more than 4 in 10 employees struggle to get the recommended amount of sleep every night. It’s not just sleep quantity that suffers. Indeed, 4 in 5 employees report feeling unhappy with their sleep quality and a quarter of people state that stress is the main factor contributing to their sleep loss. 

In a world where we’re expected to juggle the 40 hour work week, family commitments, a social life and possibly even squeeze in daily exercise, you’re likely not surprised to hear that sleep is often the first thing that we sacrifice. However, what you may not know is that slacking on sleep can amplify our stress. The reverse is also true; maintaining high levels of stress increases our alertness and consequently reduces our bodies’ ability to enter a relaxed and sleep-conducive state.

This loop is known as the “stress-sleep cycle”, a process by which high stress levels prevent us from “switching off” and getting sufficient sleep, meanwhile sleep deprivation affects our ability to regulate emotions and manage daily stressors. 

The good news? We can break the cycle. Here are 5 steps to restoring minimising stress and increasing sleep quality and quantity:

  1. Schedule in de-stressing. Do you find yourself lying awake after a stressful day, even though you’re exhausted? Or perhaps you find yourself overthinking a workplace stress the moment your head hits the pillow? With many of us going through busy days at 100 miles an hour, it’s understandable that dealing with stressors often takes the backseat until bedtime. Instead, prioritise scheduling times in your day where you can process stressors or de-escalate tension. This may be making time for morning journaling, a lunchtime walk or post-work meditation. When we allow ourselves time to process and decompress throughout the day, stresses are much less likely to crop up to keep us conscious at night-time. 
  2. Control your light exposure: Most of us have heard that blue light from your phone, TV or computer screen can be detrimental to sleep. But, did you know that all light exposure affects sleep. To work with your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle (circadian rhythm), try to reduce your light exposure in the 2 hours prior to bed. Dimming the lights, choosing lamps over bright lights and avoiding screens can all be great ways to signal to your brain that sleep is approaching. You can also enjoy greater energy and focus in the mornings by ensuring that you get 30+ minutes of bright light when you wake up.
  3. Take control of your tech: It’s not simply blue light from phone’s which perpetuates the sleep/ stress cycle, but also the bombardment of to-dos, emails and work tasks which crop up in the notification section. It’s easy to think that there’s no harm in quickly checking your emails before bed, yet in reality this puts your brain back into “work mode” rather than preparing to sleep. Your bedroom should be primarily for sleep so try to taper your tech usage in the run up to bed and leave your phone outside the bedroom overnight.
  4. Keep a worry journal. Have you ever been settling down to sleep when you’re suddenly hit with a jolt of worry and anxiety? Maybe it’s worrying about whether you’ve put the bins out or sent that email. Or perhaps it’s a bigger issue, whether that’s finances or family, which is playing on your mind. In reality, there’s very few problems that need to be solved at bedtime, so resist the urge to address issues that can wait until morning. Instead, you may find it useful to keep a journal in your bedside drawers. This journal serves to get your worries out of your mind and onto paper, allowing you to get back to sleep with minimal disruption.
  5. Prioritise rest. Whilst sleep is a fantastic form of rest, it shouldn’t be your only form of rest. In fact, not resting throughout the day will often result in higher nighttime cortisol levels and thus less sleep. To counteract this problem and prevent ourselves from becoming burnt out, we need to incorporate opportunities to rest throughout the day and consequently allow our nervous systems to regularly release hormones compatible with mood stabilisation and relaxation, rather than stress. This may include setting time aside for breaks throughout the day, setting time aside specifically for admin and organisation, scheduling in time at home which is specifically for relaxing or developing a list of relaxation and stress management techniques specific to you.

Need further help?

Escaping the sleep/ stress cycle rarely happens overnight! AMH Works is here to help. Our 2 hour Burnout and Rest course is the perfect opportunity for workplaces to equip employees with tools to manage stress, prevent burnout and incorporate rest into their daily routines. Delivered either in person or online, this course has been shown to increase productivity, decrease sickness absence and boost workplace morale.

To find out more, visit or email [email protected] .

Article by Lauren Houston, AMH Works trainer

Lauren currently works as a trainer within Action Mental Health Works which centres on reducing stigma and improving mental wellbeing in Northern Irish workplaces.
Having gained the National Academic Performance Award and a first class honours degree in Psychology, Lauren’s professional pursuits have largely centred on reducing stigma and promoting early intervention for those suffering from mental ill health. Lauren has gained a breadth professional of experience within the mental health sector including complex mental health, homelessness, addiction, eating disorders and therapeutic intervention. Lauren has also taken an active role within the charitable sector. She is currently a committee trustee for both the Lawrence Trust and the Eating Disorders Association NI.

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