Many people pride themselves on being always connected and busy, particularly when it comes to work. But in an age of smartphones, tablets, laptops and even smart watches, it can be difficult to switch off. It's not unusual for employees to bring work home with them – and sometimes right into bed: a recent YouGov survey of over 2,000 UK employees found that 58% check work emails within 15 minutes of waking up, while 52% also log on less than 15 minutes before going to sleep.
While dedication to your job is one thing, there is a danger that this culture of being constantly ‘tuned in’ to technology can have harmful effects on your health and wellbeing, and particularly how it affects your sleep.
The dangers of sleep deprivation
According to research conducted by Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, nearly six in ten adults in Britain are currently sleep deprived – this amounts to more than 28 million people who regularly do not get a good night's sleep.
Although some people may see this merely as an inevitable consequence of our hectic modern schedules, sleep deprivation is in fact a problem that can have serious consequences. Insufficient sleep has been linked to a higher risk of all kinds of health issues, from obesity and depression to heart attacks and diabetes.
In the workplace, sleep deprivation can translate into reduced productivity and even a greater risk of accidents. Groggy workers are less alert, have shorter attention spans and are more likely to make poor decisions. They're also likely to be irritable – not ideal for maintaining office morale. Thus, it is certainly worth an employer's while to help ensure their employees get the rest they need.
The effect of tech
Devices such as smartphones contribute to the problem by tempting you to stay up that little bit later – whether to respond to a last-minute work email or simply scroll through your social media updates. And there is more to it than this: the screens on laptops, mobiles, tablets and e-readers all emit light at the blue end of the spectrum, which is particularly harmful to sleep.
How sleepy or awake you feel at any given time is controlled by a biological process called your circadian rhythm and is regulated by your daily exposure to light.
This system was very effective before the days of electric lights, when people organised their sleep and work schedules around the natural cycle of night and day. However, the advent of artificial light has meant that we're no longer dependent on the sun – and this constant exposure to other forms of light can seriously disrupt your circadian rhythm by causing it to get out of sync with normal sleeping and waking times.
Tips to save your sleep from technology
Fortunately, there are things you can do to help stop your technology interfering with your sleep:
- Avoid using your smartphone, tablet or other devices during the latter part of the evening.
- If you do need to look at a screen, turn down the brightness, or use an app that filters out most of the blue light. You can even invest in amber tinted glasses, which have a similar effect.
- Don't place your smartphone on your bedside table. This will reduce the temptation to check your emails or social media in the middle of the night.
- Try to get some natural light during daytime hours to keep your circadian rhythm in sync.
Employers and HR departments can help employees improve their sleep quality by fostering a culture in which workers feel comfortable taking time out to recharge, rather than feeling they need to work until bedtime or be constantly on call to answer emails.
It can also help if employees are encouraged to take regular breaks from their screens and access natural light during the day – for example, by going outside on their lunch break if the office doesn't have windows.
This may initially feel strange to employees who are accustomed to being perpetually switched on, but the long-term benefits to their mental and physical health are well worth the investment.