Sleep develops in a pattern, and clearly the pandemic has not been kind to pre-pandemic patterns. COVID-19 has imposed its own schedules, and workplaces, schools, and bedtimes have struggled to keep pace. A recent study offers insight into how these changes have affected us – sometimes for the better.
The pandemic has created an impromptu social experiment in sleep patterns. Many people have experienced new flexibility in hours, due to situations such as closures, work-from-home arrangements, furloughs and layoffs. So what happens when people can change their sleep patterns to better align with their circadian rhythms?
I participated in an international study that explored this question. Nearly 15,000 adults from 14 countries participated. Almost half of these respondents said that their pandemic schedules more closely aligned with their natural sleep-wake cycles than their pre-pandemic schedules.
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Social jet lag (SJL) is the discrepancy between social schedules and natural sleep-wake cycles. People with a high SJL – who have wide variations in their schedules – are more susceptible to insomnia, depression, anxiety and lower well-being than those with regular schedules.
For example, night owls (people who prefer to sleep later in the morning and go to bed later) who have to get up early on weekdays but can sleep on weekends have a large SJL. Early risers (those who get up early in the morning and go to bed earlier) who get up early on weekdays and weekends have little or no SJL.
In our study published in the journal Nature and science of sleep in October 2021, 46% of respondents reduced their SJL during the pandemic. Almost all have achieved this by changing their schedules later – waking up later, having dinner later, going to bed later. Only 20% of respondents increased their SJL, and the rest reported no change.
Research has shown that nearly half of the population follow a schedule that betrays their natural later chronotype. What is surprising, however, is that people who reduced their SJL experienced more insomnia and stress during the pandemic than those who maintained a constant SJL. This is likely because spending too much time in bed reduces sleep efficiency, making it harder to sleep through the night.
Further research is needed to find out whether the changes that spurred these new schedules – perhaps those that affected work status, family relationships, finances, and health – negated the potential positive effects of a decrease in SJL. . What public health benefits might exist if this group could reduce their SJL, outside of the stressors created during COVID-19?
While work-from-home arrangements have sparked debates over or we should work, much less focused on when we should work. This research shows that the “when” conversation may have as much impact on health and happiness as the “where” conversation. Aligning schedules with our personal biology is crucial. It’s not just about bedtimes and alarm clocks; it is a question of physical and mental health.
Our study shows that forcing people to stick to one schedule only works for about half of us. What we need to explore next is how more flexible schedules and new models can help the other half. These new findings would likely have significant implications for our sleep, as well as our mental and physical health.
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