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How Freelance Work Impacts Sleep

Freelance and remote work can impact sleep duration and quality. The freedom that freelance and remote work provides can lead to the lack of a sleep routine, which is unfortunate because going to sleep and waking up around the same time every day is important to health. In addition to being a health risk, irregular sleeping habits could also lead to lower productivity and as a result, less income.

It might be tempting for freelance and remote workers to work late or skip sleep in order to meet deadlines. In the long run, however, skipping sleep will cost money. Insufficient sleep leads to lower productivity and increased illness. The diagram below shows how much money is lost each year due to insufficient sleep. For freelance and remote workers, especially those who do not have employer-sponsored health insurance or paid time off, insufficient sleep will only cost them over time.

RAND sleep map

Source: RAND Corporation

How a Freelance Career Impacts Sleep

Hundreds of studies have found a relationship between work and sleep. Obtaining enough sleep and good quality sleep is needed for optimal work productivity. Shift workers, or those who work evenings, nights, or a rotating schedule rather than traditional business hours, are more likely to have sleep problems. These issues are so common, there’s an official name for it: Shift Work Sleep Disorder. Even people who work during the day can develop work-related sleep problems and fatigue if they work excessively.

The nature of freelance work can also greatly impact sleep. The defining characteristic of freelance work is that the person doing the work is self-employed, or an independent contractor according to the IRS. A person is an independent contractor if the companies hiring them have “the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done.” With this freedom comes a downside that can affect sleep.

Freelance Work and Sleep Hygiene

The increased freedom that accompanies freelance work can translate into poor sleep hygiene if a person isn’t careful. Sleep hygiene refers to all of the habits and factors that surround a person’s sleep. Sleep hygiene includes bedtime and wake up time, nighttime routine, and factors associated with the room such as temperature, light, and sound.

Most people know that sleeping a consistent amount each night is important. Sleeping on a regular schedule is also important, and not doing so can negatively impact health in many ways. Inconsistent sleep times can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, which affects other bodily systems. Going to sleep and waking up at different times every day can increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and other health issues.

Many adults’ bedtimes and wake times are likely at least partially determined by what time they have to work. Since freelance workers have more flexible schedules, they are responsible for determining their ideal wake times. If freelancers sleep whenever they feel like, varying their sleep hours from day to day, they could become less healthy as a result and find themselves suffering from a self-created form of Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

While there are freelancers of all types, many work remotely using a computer. According to a Gallup poll, 43% of American workers work remotely at least part of the time. With remote work comes the freedom to work from different locations and at different times. Just because a person can work on their laptop at night doesn’t mean they should, however.

Many studies demonstrate that using an electronic device in the evening will negatively impact sleep in some way. Remote freelancers choosing to do digital work close to when they would like to sleep are practicing poor sleep hygiene. People who looked at light-emitting tablets in the evening instead of reading print materials ended up going to sleep 30 minutes later, having delayed and less melatonin released, and taking longer to fall asleep.

A similar negative impact on sleep has been found for other light-emitting devices such as computers and phones. Study after study has found that bedtime smartphone use, for example, often leads to later bedtimes, shorter sleep duration, lower quality sleep, and reduced daytime function.

Increased Stress, Freelance Work, and Sleep

A large body of research shows that increased stress and anxiety are closely related to poor sleep. Freelancers face unique stressors that other workers generally do not face. One stressor freelance employees often deal with that traditional employees do not is being tasked with continually finding more work for themselves to do. Another stressor is potentially lacking in healthcare benefits, and yet another is being isolated due to working alone.

As feelings of employment insecurity increase, so do insomnia and sleep problems. It seems logical that freelancers would experience more employment insecurity than traditional employees. Although researchers haven’t looked into this specifically, one study found that being self-employed is associated with fewer mental health benefits than being traditionally employed. Another study found that media freelance workers were more likely to report poorer health, which is related to stress and “adverse psychosocial work conditions” of the freelance work.

How Freelance Work May Help You Sleep Better

A Gallup poll found that while 29% of people with full-time jobs are considered to be “thriving” in terms of their well-being, only 14% of self-employed folks can say the same. A steady sleep schedule, or lack thereof, likely plays a role in this difference. That said, if you’re a freelancer, you aren’t destined to poor sleep and, as a result, poorer health. With the freedom of freelancing comes the freedom to create a routine and environment that leads to even better sleep health.

Freelance work has the potential to lead to better sleep because of the schedule-related freedoms that come with it. Although it didn’t focus on sleep specifically, one study found that flexibility and control over one’s work schedule can lead to a better work-life balance in workers. Many times, freelancers do not have to begin work at a specific time of day. As a result, they can set their own sleep schedules. Freelance workers who also work remotely are able to avoid a daily commute and could instead spend that time obtaining restorative sleep.

Freelance Work and Wake-Up Time

A benefit of freelancing is the ability to determine when you wake up in the morning. Procrastinating on going to bed is a common reason workers do not receive enough sleep. If a freelance worker finds that they have trouble going to bed by a certain time, however, they could simply adjust their wake up time to ensure they will still receive the 7+ hours of sleep recommended for adults.

Setting a consistent wake-up time is important, however. Waking up at different times every day can lead to sleep problems, or even Shift Work Sleep Disorder. A freelance worker who has trouble waking up at 6 or 7 AM can adjust their schedule and wake up at 8 or 9 AM, but they should not wake up at 6 AM one day and 9 AM another day.

Remote Workers Avoid Commuting

As technology has changed, the nature of work has changed for the majority of people. Prior to the invention of the personal computer and the internet, even information-based work had to be conducted largely in person, usually during set hours. Now, people can work from their laptops and phones, communicating digitally, sometimes with people in different time zones or countries. A growing percentage of people work remotely full-time, while an even larger amount work remotely some of the time.

Source: Quartz using U.S. Census Data

Working remotely adds to the potential for a longer sleep duration by allowing workers to avoid a commute. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average time an American spends traveling to work is 26.9 minutes. Avoiding a commute is a major positive when it comes to remote work and sleep. Remote workers can sleep in that much longer and, if they plan a healthy routine, perhaps receive even more sleep than in-office workers.

Freelance Workers Determine Total Work Time

Another advantage to freelancing is that the total number of hours worked per day is up to the individual rather than dictated by an employer. Although it might seem counterintuitive, working a bit less in order to prioritize sleep could result in higher productivity. One study found that each additional hour of paid work a person engages in each day leads to an average of 10 minutes less sleep each night.

Workaholism, or working too much, is associated with sleep problems. Workaholism is also associated with “daytime dysfunction,” or tiredness during the day. Working too much could create an unwanted cycle in which the freelancer is sacrificing sleep and, as a result, less able to work productively. The lowered productivity could then lead to more work hours as compensation. Refusing to compromise a sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene to complete work can help prevent such a cycle from beginning.

A study on expert work found that balance between work time and leisure time is important. Freelancers can track their time and carefully monitor what amount of work is best for them. Then, they can adjust accordingly, by adding or removing gigs or clients as necessary to stay within a healthy amount of total daily work hours.

How to Get Better Sleep as a Freelancer

Insomnia is costly to employers because it results in lowered productivity and increased time off. When you’re a freelancer who does not have paid time off or employer-sponsored healthcare, that cost only affects your own bottom line. This section contains tips on how to get better sleep, so you can stay healthier and create your best work.

Limit Your Daily Work Hours

Overloading on work is associated with low-quality sleep. Insufficient sleep can lead to burnout. While it might be tempting to pull an all-nighter once in a while, or work longer hours on days you have more energy, that practice will most likely backfire over time and possibly even lead to burnout. Identify the total number of hours you want to work each day, and try not to exceed it.

Create a Sleep/Wake Schedule 

Since you don’t have an external source forcing you into a regular sleep routine, you’re going to have to create one yourself. Going to sleep and waking up at around the same time every day is essential to good sleep hygiene. Changing your sleep pattern every night will negatively affect your work and put you at greater risk for health problems. If possible, it’s probably best to adhere to a somewhat traditional work schedule to avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder that often affects people who work second, third, and rotating shifts.

Limit Caffeine Intake 

Caffeine can be tempting, especially when you’re facing a deadline. It’s best to avoid coffee and other caffeine-containing products in the hours before bed, however, because of the negative impact they can have on sleep. For example, consuming a double espresso three hours before bedtime delays the circadian melatonin rhythm by an average of 40 minutes.

Avoid Screen Time Before Bed

A wide variety of studies have consistently found that light-emitting devices negatively impact sleep duration and quality. Avoid working on your computer or laptop in the hours before bed. Also avoid looking at your phone or tablet for long during those hours, too. If you must look at a screen, consider wearing blue light-blocking glasses.

In addition to avoiding light-emitting screens, you might also dim the lights in your home and use lamps in the hours before bedtime, instead. Exposure to indoor lighting has been found to delay when melatonin is released and suppress how much is released, leading to a shorter sleep duration.

Final Thoughts on Sleep and Freelance/Remote Work

Freelance work generally comes with freedom and flexibility around when, where, and how a person does their work. Remote work is flexible in terms of location, and often also flexible in terms of work hours. As technological advances make freelance and remote work more common, it’s important for people to be aware of the connections between work and sleep.

Freelance and remote workers should prioritize sleep hygiene and set sleep schedules for themselves that they stick to every night and morning. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time is important to sleep health. Freelance and remote workers who don’t maintain consistent sleep schedules might find themselves grappling with insomnia, fatigue, or even Shift Work Sleep Disorder. A benefit of the freedom associated with freelance and remote work is that workers who maintain good sleep health might be able to get even more sleep than their location-dependent counterparts.

Additional Resources

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