In a fast-paced world where work schedules extend beyond the traditional 9-5 framework, the importance of quality sleep cannot be overstated. But sleep, a cornerstone of our overall health and well-being, is increasingly compromised by atypical work patterns with knock-on consequences for people’s health, productivity and the economy. As part of her PhD, Gill Weston from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL undertook a comprehensive study delving into the links between atypical work schedules and sleep duration and quality among a diverse group of over 25,000 individuals working in the UK. The research throws up some interesting findings and key takeaways for employers and policymakers together with a call for urgent action to better support workers’ health.
While individual sleep needs vary, adults are generally recommended to aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night. The repercussions of poor sleep extend beyond mere fatigue. Research demonstrates a U-shaped association between sleep duration and poor health, emphasising the critical role of balanced sleep in overall well-being.
Insufficient sleep and sleep problems are linked with mental and cognitive health issues, chronic diseases, and even work-related injuries. The economic toll of poor sleep is staggering, with productivity losses estimated at over £40 billion annually in the UK.
To look scientifically at the links between atypical work patterns and sleep, we made use of data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, known as Understanding Society. This data set follows the lives of thousands of people across the UK over time and can be used to look at how their circumstances and health are intertwined, impacting one another.
Using this fantastic data, we were able to investigate the work patterns and sleep experiences of 25,000 men and women, offering us a robust representation of the UK workforce during this period. People in the study are asked a host of questions, including about their jobs and hours of work but also their health and, for our purposes, their sleep.
We focused on three atypical temporal work patterns: extended weekly work hours (more than 40 hours), weekend work, and nonstandard schedules (e.g. shifts, early mornings & late evenings). To make sure our findings were as robust as possible, we took into account a range of other factors such as age, caring, income, health, job satisfaction, work autonomy, and other conditions that could impact an individual’s sleep patterns.
Toll on health and productivity
Our findings showed a clear association between atypical work patterns and sleep, with working hours, frequent weekend working, and nonstandard schedules all linked to both short (less than 7 hours) and long (more than 9 hours) sleep durations. They were also linked with increased sleep disturbance such as struggling to fall asleep within half an hour, waking up in the middle of the night or early morning and a self-rating of poor quality sleep.
Extended working hours were associated with both short sleep and sleep disturbance, with extra long working hours (55+ hours or more per week) linked to the poorest sleep. Similarly, weekend work and nonstandard schedules were linked to a range of sleep issues.
Interestingly, our study uncovered gender differences in the impact of long working hours on sleep, with women experiencing a stronger association. Men who worked part-time were more likely to experience longer sleep durations, possibly reflecting underlying issues of underemployment and its connections to mental health.
Implications for employers and policymakers
Our findings serve as something of a wake-up call to those responsible for the wellbeing of workers, but also the health of our economy. Employers and policymakers need to ensure that sufficient rest and recovery are a greater priority together with a more careful consideration of the timing and scheduling of work to better support workers’ health and productivity.
Encouraging work schedules that align with individuals’ chronotypes (‘larks’ and ‘owls’), providing sufficient breaks, and minimising overtime culture are crucial steps in fostering a sleep-friendly work environment. As are tackling the psychosocial work stressors that contribute to poor sleep patterns, and allowing workers to disengage from work outside their normal working hours.
Employees who must work long and irregular hours ought to be compensated for the negative consequences of these work patterns. Future research could help determine the compensation required.
By acknowledging the impact of atypical temporal work patterns on sleep and taking proactive measures, employers and policymakers can contribute to a healthier, more productive workforce. After all, a good night’s sleep is an investment in both individual and collective success.
Work hours, weekend working, nonstandard work schedules and sleep quantity and quality: findings from the UK Household Longitudinal Study is research by Gillian Weston, Afshin Zilanawala, Elizabeth Webb, Livia Carvalhod and Anne McMunn and is published in BMC Public Health.