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Medically Reviewed by Colleen Ehrnstom, Ph.D., ABPP
There is a direct correlation between excessive work and sleep problems.
Insomnia and other sleep disorders cause workplace absenteeism and reduced productivity, but the flip side of that coin is that too much work can also cause poor quality sleep.
Night work – workers on the night shift – have been the topic of many epidemiological studies. But even people who work day shifts and work long, long hours can have sleep problems, too. We’re talking about workaholics.
When you’re a workaholic, the concept of 9 to 5 can be a challenging concept. You work 24/7. Unfortunately, that kind of schedule leaves no room for sleep. Although it does leave plenty of room for sleep problems, like insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness, to develop.
Put simply, workaholism is an addiction to work. In today’s modern society, plenty of us can be described as hard-workers. But we’re not all workaholics.
People who are workaholics have an extremely difficult time tearing themselves away from work. Even when they are finally “off the clock,” you’re still likely to find them checking email on their phone or listening to voicemail. They are obsessive about work and refuse to take time off.
They tend to be prefer to be in control and can have difficulty delegating, so they frequently end up taking on more work than is reasonable. They’re always willing to take on more assignments, more work, and more people and projects to manage. Then, because their workload becomes unmanageable, they stop making room for other aspects of their life to the point of neglect. Friends, family, and hobbies get left out in the cold. Meanwhile, that increasing pile of work either doesn’t get done, or gets done poorly.
Though workaholics often don’t see their choices as a problem, people who are workaholics are less likely to be satisfied with their work-life balance and are more likely to view work as the main source of stress in their lives, according to a survey of over 8,600 Canadian workers.
Sadly, while workaholics can’t bear to be away from work, they often don’t enjoy themselves while they are working. It’s a lose-lose.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, you may be a workaholic.
The negative consequences of workaholism are pervasive and wide-ranging – from disrupted social relationships to poor sleep, depression, burnout, and impaired health. It’s not uncommon for workaholics to develop depression or anxiety disorders, recurring stress-induced headaches and stomachaches, or both.
Workaholism is so dangerous because it’s a cycle. The more you work, the more exhausted, stressed out, and unhealthy they become. As a result, you are less productive, which forces you to spend more time working to catch up.
The good news is that cycles are based on habits and habits can be modified. You can address workaholism and its effects on sleep by focusing your current patterns around work and replacing them with more balanced ones.
Additionally, addressing your workaholism patterns will actually support the goals that likely contributed to you getting into this cycle to begin with. Learning to balance life and sleep has been shown to be linked with greater focus, concentration and overall productivity. It is also linked to a sense of greater quality of life.
It can be challenging to make behavioral change not only because human minds struggle with change but also because our culture feeds workaholism patterns. Technology is designed to reinforce these habits. Notification beeps and ringtones are all carefully engineered to encourage an endorphin rush and compel you to check in.
Likewise, our society prizes workaholism. Those who work more and sleep less are viewed as heroes, even though they’re slowly skilling themselves with that kind of behavior.
However, we can increase motivation and willingness for change by balancing these societal reinforcements with the research about the inherent concerns with workaholism.
According to a study of over 500 hospital employees, workaholics display more risky behaviors than their non-workaholic peers, even those that could be defined as “hard workers.” They experience significantly poorer-quality sleep, which translates to tiredness upon waking and a higher tendency for drowsy driving. They also consume more caffeine and alcohol to keep up, and show a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
Meanwhile, the effects of sleep deprivation make all this worse. Workaholics have increased risk for two types of sleep problems. One is the reduced opportunity for sleep (e.g, working during times when the body needs to sleep). Workaholics can struggle with prioritizing sleep and giving the body ample time for sleep. The second is a reduced capacity to sleep (e.g., classic insomnia such as trouble falling asleep and staying asleep). Even when you want to sleep, your mind can be so busy and active, it can be difficult to sleep.
Multiple studies have found sleep problems to be one of the largest predictors of workplace burnout (2008, 2012, 2018). Sleep deprived people suffer from more work-related accidents, muscular problems, back problems, concentration problems and heart disease.
The primary sleep problems affecting workaholics include insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, and jet lag.
Insomnia describes a difficulty falling and staying asleep. Insomniacs experience fatigue, irritability, and reduced cognitive functioning during the daytime. Over time, sleep deprivation from insomnia can develop into anxiety or depression about not being able to sleep well.
A study cited in Industrial Health in 2005 found insomniacs in the United States have an average monthly sick absence rate that is 1.4 times greater than people without sleep troubles. And figures from the National Commission on Sleep Disorders suggest insomnia in the workplace costs the American economy between $92 and $107.5 billion a year in absenteeism and workplace disability, lost productivity, mistakes, and accidents.
Multiple studies have found positive correlations between workaholism and poor sleep. One study found that the higher the propensity for workaholism, the longer the sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and the correspondingly worse daytime dysfunction.
Another study, focused on individuals who worked over 60 hours a week at a veterans hospital, concluded that over 76% reported problems falling or staying asleep, falling asleep at inappropriate times, excessive total sleep time, and abnormal behaviors associated with sleep. Abnormal behaviors included sleep walking and sleep tremors. When you consider that Ebenezer Scrooge was the original workaholic, it’s no surprise he experienced such fitful dreams.
Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) is often the result of insomnia or another sleep disorder. People with EDS experience low energy and overwhelming tiredness during the daytime, even when they believe they got sufficient sleep the night before.
The word believe is key there. A person may stay in bed the whole night, but if they wake up occasionally due to stress from overwork, their sleep cycle gets interrupted. As a result, their overall sleep quality is lower and can result in EDS.
A study of 600 Japanese nurses found those with workaholic tendencies did indeed have excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty waking up in the morning, and a feeling of subjective sleep insufficiency.
Excessive work has also been found to interrupt sleep patterns and cause sleep problems. People who are constantly “on the go” and travel a lot suffer greatly from jet lag. Problems range from getting to sleep to waking in a timely manner. Public health officials base this on the behavioral and physiological measurements, using information from sleep logs and sleep laboratory testing.
Workaholics suffer effects similar to those of jet lag. Under continuously excessive work, the body does not have a chance to develop regular circadian patterns and sleep problems result.
There are obviously parallels to the effect of stress on sleep patterns, but it might not just be stress that is causing the sleep disturbances. Too much stimulation – hyperarousal – is a more likely cause. Especially for people middle-age and older, it is just not easy to shift gears and relax at night after heavy work.
Sleep experts would love everyone to have a regular work schedule. However, other demands and values get in the way, and workers have to (or want to) work excessive hours sometimes. As awareness grows of the importance of sleep, hopefully employers will encourage more reasonable work habits, and employees will adopt them.
Until then, here are our top recommendations for enjoying better sleep while living with workaholism.
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day will retrain your internal body clock to recognize when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake.
Make sure you provide room for you to conceivably get at least 7 hours of sleep. Remember that consistent healthy sleep increases efficiency and productivity. Work on making sleep a priority.
Avoid stimulants in the early evening and night. This includes obvious things like caffeine and nicotine, as well as less obvious energizers like exercise and electronics.
Exercise in the morning, if possible. Turn off all electronics in the hour before bed – including your phone, computer, and television. No more responding to emails or watching the news you missed while you were working.
The goal is to avoid anything that awakens your mind and activates your nervous system, getting you all worked up to work.
If electronics are out of the question, you may be wondering how you can occupy yourself in that hour before bed? It is indeed possible to fill a full hour with non-work-related activities.
Calm your mind and body with before-bed rituals like a warm bath, aromatherapy, yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, listening to audio books or reading. It’s imperative to help your mind to slow down, relax, and move into the space that allows the onset of sleep as it has been conditioned to stay busy and active.
Workaholics have difficulty shutting down at any time of day. There’s always more to do. Avoid this impulse by creating a to-do list each night of all the tasks you still want or need to accomplish.
Get these work-related thoughts out of your head and onto the page so they’re not your burden to think about anymore… until you go back to work. If you tend to problem solve during hours when you could be sleeping, consider trying an intervention known as designated worry time (DWT). DWT helps you to train your brain to shift the timing of both your worrying and your fixing.
Keep work out of the bedroom and your social life. Leave your cellphone in the car when you go to a family outing. Don’t bring your computer to bed. Actually schedule and take your vacation days.
You’re training your brain to separate work from play and work from sleep. This separation will not only help you sleep better at night, but it will help you enjoy and focus on the activity at hand. A helpful tip to follow through on these guidelines is to leave an automatic message that notifies people that you have taken some time away from electronics. Not only does it ease the minds of co-workers that are used to reaching you, it increases your likelihood to hold yourself accountable to separation from work.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that’s effective for treating workaholism. During CBT, the patient learns to recognize the thinking patterns and behaviors that contribute to and reinforce their workaholism. You then learn how to replace those with healthier, more rational thoughts and habits.
For instance, CBT may uncover that a workaholic feels guilty when they don’t work, which compels them to continue working when they go home at night. Or they may have an unreasonable fear that taking time off will get them fired.
CBT is also a recommended treatment for insomnia.
Lean on loved ones for support as you work to overcome your workaholism. Ask them to help you stick to these habits.
Workaholics Anonymous is a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. The website offers educational resources and a local meeting directory.