Want better sleep? Leave your work at the office

It will come as no surprise that taking your work home with you ups your stress levels and impacts sleep quality. But here's the catch: "work" isn't just about what you do in the office. It's also about other work-related "baggage," such as experiencing rudeness, which may prove extra difficult to leave behind.

"It's been a hard day's night, and you've been working like a dog," as the Beatles' song very aptly puts it.

Now you're in need of some well-deserved peace and quiet.

But just how easy is it to step out of your work shoes and put on some comfy slippers — not just literally, but also in terms of your mental state?

Are you able to leave the stresses of your workplace behind you when you call it a day and head home? Or, if you regularly work from home, are you able to click the "off" button on all those e-mails and video conferences? If the answer is "no, not really," you may be in trouble.

Studies have found that being unable to completely shut off your working brain can have serious negative consequences on your health and overall well-being. For instance, as recently as last year, researchers have shown that individuals who find it hard to unplug are frequently more exhausted.

What happens when we don't ignore out-of-hours e-mails, or when we turn on our laptops at home to see if we can do a little bit of extra work, is that we don't give ourselves enough time to recover from the pressures of work before resuming said work the next day. And the next. And the next.

This pattern of giving into the temptation of staying productive even outside of normal work hours can affect our health for years to come, researchers say.

And it's not just about the work that we put in; it's also about the mental baggage that we take with us, argues a new study that was conducted by researchers from Oakland University in Rochester, MI, Portland State University in Oregon, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service.

Don't bring stress home with you

The study — published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology — suggests that people who tend to linger on bad or stressful work experiences outside of working hours report more frequent insomnia than those who can successfully shut off these bothersome thoughts.

"Sleep quality is crucial," says lead study author Caitlin Demsky, "because sleep plays a major role in how employees perform and behave at work."

That's why, she adds, "In our fast-paced, competitive professional world, it is more important than ever that workers are in the best condition to succeed, and getting a good night's sleep is key to that."

In the current study, Demsky and team surveyed 699 participants who worked at the USDA Forest Service, asking them a number of questions. These included:

  • how frequently they experienced "workplace incivility"
  • how often they "ruminated" on such incidents
  • whether they struggled with insomnia
  • how good they were at leaving work-related stress at the workplace and relaxing when they got home

The researchers also asked questions targeting other factors that might influence sleep quality, such as how many hours each participant worked per week, whether they had to look after children, and how often they normally drank alcohol.

It soon became clear to Demsky and team that individuals having negative experiences at work — such as being put down by a manager or co-worker — were more likely to sleep poorly, wake up multiple times per night, or experience other symptoms of insomnia.

Make relaxing activities routine

However, letting go of work-related stress is no easy feat. After all, if your manager thinks that you haven't done a great job this week or the teammate you've been working with on a project throws you under the waggon and blames you for everything that went wrong, how can you "let go" of that?

There's no simple solution, but finding an activity that relaxes you and engaging in that after work might help you to shake off negative experiences that, in turn, will lead to a better night's sleep.

"Incivility in the workplace takes a toll on sleep quality. It does so in part by making people repeatedly think about their negative work experiences. Those who can take mental breaks from this fare better and do not lose as much sleep as those who are less capable of letting go."

Caitlin Demsky

Does painting relax you? Or taking a long walk in the park? Don't deprive yourself of these small pleasures; they might just make the difference between reaching a state of burnout and setting healthful work-life boundaries.

However, the responsibility to promote well-being doesn't just lie with employees. The researchers also urge employers to be more sensitive about the impact that work-related stress can have on employees.

Managers should therefore avoid sending work-related e-mails after work has officially ended for the day. They should also look into joining programs that promote healthful work cultures and environments.