Workplace stress and sleep problems: they’re connected

Intuitively you know that stress and sleep are closely linked yet your inability to combine these two areas of knowledge can prevent you from taking either of them seriously. In this article I am going to take you through how they impact each other so you understand the risk of not dealing with either.


What is stress?

Stress is a biological and emotional reaction that you experience as you move out of your comfort zone and into the threat zone, irrespective of the situation. It occurs when you perceive that what is being asked of you is beyond your capability and highly likely to have an unfavourable outcome. While you are holding this emotional perception, your body is responding to it biologically. It is sending a message to your adrenal glands to produce cortisol so you can fight, flight, freeze or fawn at the appropriate time, to deal with the threat.

Biological response to stress

Adrenal glands can’t store cortisol and so when you perceive the threat has passed, your body needs to send a message to the adrenal glands to stop producing cortisol. This messaging takes time, and in the meantime, it is still producing cortisol and adrenalin and sending it around your body. This can happen for up to 20 minutes after the perceived threat has gone away. Now imagine experiencing a handful of stressors across your day and the biological impact it has on your body.


Stress at work

At work you experience a range of stressors across your day which may lead you at times to feel overwhelmed, incompetent, or just not as effective as you’d like to be. In each of these situations, you may not have felt specifically out of your depth however your self-talk may have given your body a different perspective which led it to decide to prepare for flight, flight, freeze or fawn.


Think of those days where you have a day full of meetings, or some difficult conversations with clients or team members or perhaps, the volume of work you have on at the moment is more than what you know what to do with. Those are all situations that may elicit your biological stress response. The key is to stay in the moment and finish processing a stressful event before moving on to the next one.


Can stress prevent sleep?

If you are skilled at staying in the moment and remaining calm, the impacts of stressful responses are minimised however if you have a tendency to anticipate, ruminate or catastrophise it will be harder to minimise its impacts. If your self-talk isn’t friendly or if under considerable pressure it turns especially dark, you are continuing to communicate to your body that you’re under threat and it will continue to produce cortisol.


Often, we naturally know what we need to do to rid our body of the stress at the end of the day. Clients who listen to their bodies often recognise the ‘tired but wired’ feeling as needing ‘quiet time’ or to do some exercise. They may feel they need to exercise after work because they had excess energy, or they go for a run towards the end of their workday to start de-stressing from their day. Other clients choose to drink alcohol to bring their stress levels down to a level where they can numb out their stress and increase their chances of falling asleep. While this may be a helpful strategy for a night or two, sustained use of alcohol introduces other challenges over time.


You know you’re managing your work stress well when you can fall asleep without a sleep aid, sleep uninterrupted, and wake feeling refreshed.


3 physiological changes that if left unattended can make it hard to sleep after a stressful day:

  • Muscle Tension: One of the hallmarks of the stress response is muscle tension. The major muscle groups in the body tense up in anticipation of potential harm or pain. But too much tension can interfere with the relaxation needed for peaceful sleep.
  • Elevated Heart Rate: An elevated heart rate and rapid breathing are common signs of stress. Often breathing from the chest not the diaphragm. However, sound sleep requires the opposite – slowed heart rate and nasal breathing.
  • Digestive System Effects: Excessive stress can affect the digestive system, often causing an upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation that may be uncomfortable when trying to sleep.


How stress impacts sleep

Stress is a normal feeling, and it will never go away. It is there to ensure our survival and as I was reminded last week, ‘you can’t beat evolution!’ However, workplace stress can adversely affect sleep quality and duration, and insufficient sleep can lower workplace stress tolerance levels.  


Both workplace stress and a lack of sleep can lead to lasting physical and mental health problems.


The relationship between workplace stress and sleep

There is a bi-directional relationship between workplace stress and sleep. Poor sleep results in higher stress vulnerability and is often a factor in poor mental health. And the reverse is also true. Healthy sleep supports less reactivity to stressful situations at work. Effective stress management used across your work-day can reduce the negative effects of stress on sleep, even for those with high-stress lifestyles.


Ways to reduce your stress across your day

Often when you compartmentalize your work and home life, stress management gets left as an after-work activity, which then may not get done. The most effective way to manage workplace stress is to manage it as it happens. If there is no specific stress trigger for you at work, it’s a combination of mini-stressors, then a strategy of releasing stress build up across the day is an effective strategy.

Some workplace strategies you may consider;

  • Allowing time between meetings to de-stress from a meeting before your next one
  • Plan at the start of your day to achieve 3 things and focus your efforts on them. Give yourself a mini celebration when you achieve each one.
  • Listen to a feel-good song with headphones on
  • As you walk to the bathroom, breathe mindfully through your nose and if possible, slow your breathing down. This can also be don at your desk but ay be harder without the walking component.
  • Speak to a trusted colleague, in a quiet or private area so you won’t be overheard.


A client who worked longer than usual days due to being in an international role, needed to learn to nap, so that he was able to manage his sleep needs, stress levels and perform in his role. Without an adjustment to how he worked and slept, he would have been slowly eroding his capacity to manage stress and I suspect become even more dependent on his strategies to wake up and fall asleep.


Sleep and temporary workplace stressors

Studies have also shown that sleep can improve quickly after a temporary stressor ends. However, in my experience of working with clients, the longer a temporary stressor is present and its impact trivialised, the longer it takes to recover from the negative effects of temporary stressors on sleep.


This could apply to you if your work is organised in blocks of time, e.g., litigator or auditor or if your work is project based e.g., architect, change management, program manager.


Also, never underestimate the impact of a temporary stressor at home e.g., new baby, renovation or relationship challenges to impact or derail your stress management abilities at work.  


If you are struggling to manage your stress across the day or sleep at night because of it, book in a confidential call with me where we can explore working together on how to change your response to stress and sleep better every night. 

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