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Workplace incivility linked to poor sleep, but relaxing after work may help

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Anything that puts the sleep of America’s workers at risk does the same for their health.

If your boss or coworkers have been rude to you at work, you’re likely to have trouble sleeping that night as you ruminate about the day’s unpleasant events. 

But if you take a “mental break” after a rough day at work and do something fun or relaxing, the chances of you having a good night’s sleep will significantly improve.

Those are the key findings from a small but interesting study published Monday in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

“Incivility in the workplace takes a toll on sleep quality,” said Caitlin Demsky, the study’s lead author and a professor of management at Oakland University, in a released statement. “It does so in part by making people repeatedly think about their negative work experiences. Those who can take mental breaks from this fare better and do not lose as much sleep as those who are less capable of letting go.” 

The topic of this research is timely for a couple of reasons. First, workplace incivility appears to be on the rise in the United States, as background information in the study points out. In a 2011 survey, 55 percent of employees reported being treated rudely at work at least once a month. By 2014, that figure had climbed to 62 percent. 

Second, Americans workers are already getting far too little sleep. In one recent study, 36.5 percent of U.S. workers — 31.6 percent of those in Minnesota — reported sleeping for less than the recommended minimum of seven hours on a typical night.  

As I’ve noted here before, getting less than the recommended amount of sleep has been linked to obesity and a variety of negative health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes and depression. Insufficient sleep also increases the risk of injuries from accidents and mental errors, both on and off the job. 

So, anything that puts the sleep of America’s workers at risk does the same for their health. 

Study details

For the current study, Demsky and her colleagues surveyed 699 U.S. Forest Service employees working in the Southwest. Their average age was 48 years, and about half were women. They had worked for the Forest Service for an average of 16 years and served in a variety of jobs, including managing wildlife and timber, fighting wildland fires and working in business operations and public affairs. 

The participants filled out questionnaires that asked them to indicate how often they had been subjected to specific types of rude, disrespectful or otherwise uncivil behavior from a supervisor or co-worker within the past six months. They were also asked how often they had negative thoughts about work, including whether they found themselves troubled by work-related issues when they weren’t on the job. Other questions were designed to determine if they had symptoms of insomnia and how much they were able to detach from work and relax. Still other questions asked about the number of children they had at home, the hours they worked per week and the amount of alcohol they consumed — all factors known to contribute to sleep problems.

The study found that people who perceived their supervisors or coworkers as being judgmental or verbally abusive toward them were more likely to negatively ruminate about the abuse once they got home. They were also more likely to report symptoms of insomnia, including waking up several times during the night. 

But those participants who were able to psychologically detach from work once they got home by engaging in relaxing activities were more likely not to replay the day’s negative work experience over and over again in their mind  — and to sleep better.

The study doesn’t list the activities that helped the Forest Service employees recover from their difficult workdays, but it notes that other researchers have identified activities that can help. These include exercise, meditation, volunteering, taking a walk and listening to music.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with plenty of caveats. To begin with, this was an observational study, so it can show only a correlation between workplace incivility and symptoms of insomnia. Other factors, not yet identified, may explain the results.

In addition, the study was relatively small, and all its participants worked for a single employer. So the findings may not be applicable to larger, more diverse groups of workers. 

Still, the findings are intriguing. They also have some practical implications, say Demsky and her co-authors.

The researchers urge employers to take steps to reduce workplace incivility, noting that interventions aimed at reducing such incivility have been shown to be successful. 

They also suggest that employers help their employees psychologically detach from the workplace by not e-mailing, texting or calling them about work-related matters outside of business hours. 

Letting employees “recover” from work — and get a good night’s sleep, free from work-related worries — benefits employers as well as employees, the researchers point out.

“Sleep quality is crucial because sleep plays a major role in how employees perform and behave at work,” said Demsky. “In our fast-paced, competitive professional world, it is more important than ever that workers are in the best condition to succeed, and getting a good night’s sleep is key to that.”

FMI: The study can be read online.

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