In America, many individuals have a hard time knowing when to call it a day with work. Some jobs demand grueling hours or dedicated time that creeps into one’s sleep schedule. Others may struggle with their work-life balance, thanks to smart devices — which some say have created a culture that doesn’t always honor boundaries. Additionally, many folks are continuing to work from home or are adapting to hybrid work schedules. These trends have contributed towards blurring the once clear line between work and life, leading some to sacrifice personal needs such as adequate sleep to complete more work tasks.
Although it seems like a no-brainer to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night to be your best self, that is not always something that is easily obtainable, especially in our current culture. What some might not know, however, is that a good night’s rest (or lack thereof) can impact one’s mental health. And with increasing rates of mental health issues across the country, research on the impact of sleep and well-being is more important than ever before.
Philip Gehrman, PhD, an associate professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry and a clinical psychologist at the Penn Chronobiology and Sleep Institute in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent his career researching and treating insomnia and other sleep disorders in the context of mental health conditions. Gehrman’s research blends the study of sleep with mental health impacts. “Most, if not all mental health disorders are associated with disturbances in sleep,” he says. His research aims to understand the underlying mechanisms driving those associations between sleep and mental health, in hopes of leading to better treatments in the future.
“Sleep gives us a window of opportunity. If we can improve sleep, hopefully we can see an improvement in mental health,” Gehrman says.
Creating Boundaries to Improve Sleep
Sleep is essential in order for your body to function properly. When you sleep, your cells are repaired, immunity is boosted, and more. Not enough sleep can lead to a variety of issues like a weakened immune system, obesity, and increased risk for mental health problems.
Insomnia, one of the most well-known sleep disorders, impacts as much as one third of all adults. It is defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep accompanied by daytime symptoms, such as fatigue, poor concentration, and irritability. Insomnia may occur alone or with another physical or mental disorder. Furthermore, living with certain pre-existing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mood disorders can put you at risk for insomnia. And in general, lack of sleep can negatively impact your work performance if you are too tired or feeling irritable.
So how can people get the rest they need? For those struggling to manage healthy sleep habits and their workload, Gehrman says to try to shut down your work at a certain time. If you are unable to “unplug” from your work, it could ultimately lead to more stress and negatively impact your sleep and your mood.
“Having designated time to relax and recharge can positively impact your career, preserve your mental wellbeing, and improve your sleep quality,” said Gehrman.
Some things that people can try in order to “unplug” can be as simple as coming home from work (or stepping away from the laptop) and doing a relaxing activity that you enjoy like painting, reading a book, or going for a walk, which could also be beneficial for mental health, as well.
“Being in a relaxed state before bed is essential to get quality sleep,” said Gehrman.
Improving Sleep Quality
After setting those boundaries, there are other ways people can improve sleep quality. Gehrman first says it is important to see how your sleep patterns actually impact your life.
There is no perfect formula for how much sleep each individual requires. For some people, they can fully function and perform daily activities adequately with less than six hours of sleep a night — these are called “short sleepers” and are not that common.
If you find yourself having many restless nights and wake up many days feeling irritable, stressed or groggy, Gehrman shares some easy advice to improve sleep habits. This includes keeping a regular sleep schedule, as our bodies have a natural internal clock; and taking 30 to 60 minutes before bed to wind down. Additionally, he recommends that if you cannot fall back to sleep, don’t stress, just get up and do something calming until you feel tired again.
For those who think they can train themselves into a short sleeper, think again. Gehrman also notes that there is no evidence proving that you can train yourself to require less sleep than you really need. What actually happens is that with time, a person will have an altered perception due to lack of sleep. While they might think they are functioning well, in reality, they aren’t.
At the end of the day, adequate sleep to be your best self mentally and in your career should not feel like a burden. If an individual is struggling with sleep and it is impacting their quality of life and causing distress, it could be time to see a physician who can help.
“While there are medications for treating insomnia, cognitive behavioral treatment — called CBT — has a really good success rate. It’s also relatively brief, at about four to eight weeks,” Gehrman says. “A lot of people with insomnia never seek out treatment because they don’t want to be on medications. But there are incredibly effective non-medical treatments out there which people can utilize.”