How 42% of us have abandoned the alarm clock during lockdown
New research shows that the pandemic has had some major impacts on our sleep patterns. By Sudha Raman and Prof Andrew Coogan, Department of Psychology
Under usual circumstances, the timing of our sleep is heavily influenced by work and social schedules. Whilst we can normally study sleep timing, it is often difficult to examine the effects of changes of work schedules on sleep given various challenges around change in work timing.
During the first Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020, we undertook a study to examine how sleep patterns had changed compared to those we experienced pre-pandemic. We could view lockdowns as representing unique "natural experiments" in which to examine the impact on sleep of radical changes in work practice across large sections of society.
The observed changes in sleep timing were (not surprisingly) most prominent on work days. Before the pandemic, the need to commute or prepare for a day at the office meant waking up earlier to prepare than we would otherwise do. The shift to working from home, with no morning rush for trains or sitting in traffic on the M50, afforded many of us the opportunity to sleep in a little longer and later.
During Covid-19 restrictions, people working from home went to bed 48 minutes later and woke up almost an hour later on work days. The proportion of us who used an alarm clock to wake up in the morning on a work day dropped from 80% before restrictions to only 38% during restrictions. The use of an alarm clock, a tool to force ourselves out of bed when our bodies are not prepared to do so, is an indication of the struggle between our internal sleep-wake rhythms and work schedules that we usually experience. "Catch-up sleep" on weekends, to compensate for sleep debt usually accumulated during the working week, was also reduced during the restrictions.
Social jetlag is the term we use to describe the conflict between our internal circadian body clock and socially imposed schedules. During the restrictions, this social jetlag reduced significantly in those who were required to work from home. Sleep start and end times on work days much more closely resembled those on work-free days for those working from home. The number of people with no social jetlag increased from just 18% before restrictions to 45% during restrictions.
Essential workers who continued to attend their place of work experienced smaller changes in sleep timings and consequently had lower reduction in social jetlag compared to those who worked from home. The reduction in social jetlag for essential workers from before restrictions to during restrictions was only 10 minutes, compared to 32 minutes for non-essential workers.
But more consistent sleep across the week did not improve sleep quality. The number of participants in the study rating their sleep as poor increased from 22% before restrictions to 49% during restrictions. Recent studies in other countries confirm this observation; sleep quality generally worsened during the restrictions. Increase in feelings of tiredness and day-time sleepiness have been reported globally in individuals under travel restrictions and stay at home orders.
Worries and anxieties over health of self or family members, social isolation and financial difficulties are significant contributors to stress during outbreaks of infectious diseases. Similar concerns during this Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland could have added to feelings of fatigue and tiredness, and thus prompted lower ratings of sleep quality.
A relatively regular and better sleep timing is nonetheless an encouraging sign. Research has consistently highlighted that a weekend of catch up sleep might not be sufficient to compensate for sleep lost during work days. Irregular sleep timing and large variations in sleep between the working week and the weekend are associated with significant health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and poorer mental health.
A permanent shift to increased working from home after the pandemic may have the benefit of improving sleep, physical and psychological health
The irony of potential implication for better sleep health happening during a global health crisis is not lost on us. However, other factors such as lack of social contact or fatigue from extended period indoors could cancel out any benefits from sleep behaviours. Public health message should continue to focus on mental health support and acknowledgement of the implications of social isolation and travel restrictions. A more permanent shift to increased working from home after the pandemic may have the benefit of improving sleep health with knock-on improvements in physical and psychological health.
Individuals aged 18 and over participated in the online survey between April and June 2020. Responses from 797 participants, mean age 40 and 62% females, were included in the analysis, and 17% identified as essential workers. The full study is published in Sleep Medicine
Sudha Raman is a doctoral student at the Department of Psychology at Maynooth University. Professor Andrew Coogan is a professor at the Department of Psychology and the director of the Chronobiology and Sleep Research Laboratory at Maynooth University.