How insomnia and stress at work become a vicious circle


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Mondays are notoriously unkind. Weekends are never going to be long enough to catch up on sleep and the mountain of work never gets any less steep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the two issues may be more interconnected than we thought. A new study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden the link between sleep and work is a two-way street.


A study in sleep

New research points to a "reciprocal, causal pathway" between job strain and disturbed sleep. This could mean that those receiving treatment or therapy to improve sleep patterns could reap the benefits at work. The researchers found that just as the stresses of work can cause poorer sleep patterns, not getting the right amount and quality of sleep can mean you feel that you have less control, less support, a significantly more demanding workload and therefore — not surprisingly — higher stress. In this study, the researchers say, no relationship was found between disturbed sleep and physical work environment, shift work schedules or working hours. Previous studies have looked at the effects of shift work on mental abilities.

Torbjörn Akerstedt and Johanna Garefelt led the team which analyzed data from the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health. Their study group involved 4,827 participants — 2,655 females and 2,171 males — with an average age of 48. Using what they call the Karolinska Sleep Questionnaire, the researchers identified different modes of disturbed sleep: difficulties falling asleep, restless sleep, repeated awakenings or premature awakening. The perceived demands of work as well as the level of control and social support at work were measured using a Demand-Control-Support Questionnaire — a research tool which –– as you might expect indicates how workers perceive their employment environment and relationships. The findings of the study are published in the July issue of the journal Sleep.


Breaking the cycle

The results were clear: poor sleep means an increased perception of a difficult workplace while stress at work reduces the ability to get a good night's zees. Finding ways to help people with insomnia get more and — crucially — better sleep can break the cycle of sleep/work unhappiness. Akerstedt, professor in the department of clinical neuroscience at the institute and principal investigator of the study, says this kind of study is new: “The results are important because they show that work demands influence stress negatively, and this link has rarely been investigated in longitudinal studies.”

With the increasing demands of modern life-work patterns, a better understanding could mean better peace of mind for everyone. “Sleep problems are abundant in the industrialized world, and we need to know where mitigation may be most effective,” says Akerstedt. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around half of those who experience stress and anxiety — 52 percent of men and 42 percent of women — say they feel their problems compromise their abilities the next day. “The effect of sleep problems on stress emphasizes the importance of good sleep for functioning in everyday life,” said Akerstedt.

If you're having issues with stress, anxiety or poor sleep, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. As well as your stress levels, take a few moments to think about other causes of insomnia: take a look at your medications, your sleep environment and your routines.