Hybrid work is messing up your sleep, but here’s how to fix it

Different types of sleepers need different levels of firmness in a mattress. Photo: iStock
Different types of sleepers need different levels of firmness in a mattress. Photo: iStock


Sleep experts say a consistent sleep schedule could help you perform better at work and forge better relationships

Pandemic-era hybrid office schedules, with some days in-office and other days remote, risk upending one of the most important keys to professional success: consistent sleep.

About 42% of U.S. employees were working in hybrid arrangements as of February, according to a Gallup survey. Hybrid schedules can make it harder to stick with a consistent sleep routine because you have the option of sleeping in later on remote days.

Inconsistent or poor sleep could hurt your performance at work. It can be difficult to form professional relationships with colleagues if you are stressed or irritable, says Royette Dubar, a developmental psychologist focused on sleep and psychosocial adjustment at Wesleyan University. And sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system.

To ensure you sleep well, first try to figure out your sleep chronotype. This is determined by whether your tendency is to be an early riser or night owl. Are you naturally a night person, a morning person or somewhere in between? Try asking yourself: If you were on a desert island with no responsibilities and nothing to do, what time would you fall asleep and wake up?

Then, adopt habits—like setting recurring alarms, even on the weekend—that help you standardize a schedule that works with your body’s natural tendency.

“When you fight your biology, you normally lose," says Matt Walker, neuroscientist and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Here’s how sleep experts say you can work with your body’s natural tendencies to establish a healthy sleep routine.

Stay consistent

Once you have decided what your optimal sleep schedule is, try to stick to it. Sleep experts recommend going to bed around the same time and waking up around the same time, whether it’s a weekend or weekday, an in-person workday or a remote workday, or if you slept well or poorly.

Lacking regularity in your sleep schedule can lead to a phenomenon called social jet lag, which refers to a mismatch between an individual’s biological clock and their social clock, says Dr. Dubar. A late night here or there won’t have much of an impact, she says, just as the occasional slice of cake won’t do much harm if your diet is otherwise healthy. But consistent irregularity could make you feel physically and mentally jet-lagged.

Depending on whether your employer allows for flexible working hours, try negotiating later or earlier start times based on your sleep chronotype—and keep it consistent.

Setting your alarm for the same time each morning, cutting yourself off from caffeine at least 12 hours before bedtime, and avoiding naps late in the day will also help you maintain regular sleep and wake times, says Dr. Walker.

Don’t rely on ‘banking’ sleep

Ha Hoang, who recently graduated from the University of Southern California, says she had trouble keeping a consistent schedule during busy school weeks, especially during final exams. She spent an average of five hours and 40 minutes in bed between mid-April and mid-May, according to the Health app on Ms. Hoang’s iPhone, which estimates users’ time spent in bed based on their phone usage and preset bedtime. That doesn’t include the time it takes to fall asleep.

After graduation, she wonders if she could still go out some nights and catch up on sleep during the weekends.

Sleep scientists say: not really.

“Sleep is not like the bank. You can’t accumulate a debt and pay it off at a later time," says Dr. Walker. “Everyone has a 24-hour circadian clock and it expects regularity."

Avoid anxiety-provoking activities before bed

Unhelpful late-time habits can derail your quest for sleep consistency. Midnight might not be the best time to be scrolling through your ex-girlfriend’s Instagram or responding to your boss’s email.

Reading a book, listening to music, watching TV, meditating or taking a bath can help you slow down and relax the mind and body, says Raman Malhotra, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Screentime can be another culprit of poor sleep. Studies from Harvard, the Journal of Psychiatric Research and others show that the blue light from screens can suppress the release of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep and damaging sleep quality.

For those who find the no-tech-before-bed rule a nonstarter, Dr. Walker recommends a happy medium: If you take your phone into the bedroom, set a rule that you can only use it standing up, he says.

Tracking apps can help create consistency

Devices with sleep-monitoring capabilities such as the Apple Watch, Oura Ring and the iPhone Health app, can help users identify activities or behavioral patterns that interfere with their sleep, says Tiffany Yip, developmental psychologist and professor at Fordham University.

“You might notice on nights where you have alcohol you sleep less well, or if you eat later than you normally eat you might sleep less well, or if you had a particularly stressful day," says Dr. Yip. “Having some objective data can enlighten that process."

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