We may be sleeping longer during the coronavirus pandemic, but we’re not necessarily sleeping better, a new study from Europe suggests.
Researchers at the University of Basel surveyed 435 adults in Switzerland, Austria and Germany during a six-week period between mid-March and the end of April — a time when those countries were in strict lockdown. More than 85 percent of the participants were working from home.
The survey asked the participants how the coronavirus pandemic had changed the their daily activities and whether they perceived those changes as being burdensome. The participants also filled out a questionnaire that evaluated their sleep quality both before and after the pandemic-related lockdowns, as well as one that assessed their chronotype — their preferred sleep/wake cycle as determined by their body’s natural circadian rhythms.
The researchers then examined all that data to see if they could find a relationship between the participants’ social and biological daily rhythms and the patterns and quality of their sleep.
Longer and more regular
The data revealed that the increased flexibility of people’s social schedules during the lockdowns led to a significant reduction in “social jetlag” — the difference between work days and days off — in when and how long people slept.
The difference in length of sleep, for example, shrank by an average of 25 minutes.
People with a “night owl” chronotype — whose natural circadian rhythms show a propensity for a sleep cycle that starts late at night — tended to experience the biggest decrease in social jetlag.
In addition, three-quarters of the people surveyed said they were sleeping longer on most nights — from 25 to 51 minutes more.
“This suggests that the sleep-wake patterns of those surveyed were guided by internal biological signals rather than social rhythms,” says Christine Blume, the study’s lead author and a sleep scientist at the University of Basel’s Centre for Chronobiology, in a released statement.
The finding likely reflects the fact that people no longer had to commute to work in the morning, she adds.
As Blume and her colleagues point out in their paper, a reduction in social jetlag is a good thing. Social jetlag has been repeatedly shown to have negative effects on people’s physical health and psychological well-being.
Despite the increase in the length of their sleep, the survey’s participants did not report improvements in the quality of their sleep. In fact, they indicated their sleep had deteriorated slightly while in lockdown — for example, they were waking up more during the night.
Blume and her co-authors say this finding is to be expected given the uncertainty and anxiety that the pandemic has imposed on individuals. And the survey’s participants were not immune to such stress. Overall, they experienced a decrease in physical and mental well-being. They also reported feeling highly burdened by the many changes the pandemic had brought to their lives, including school closures, working from home and obeying curfews.
Those feelings of being burdened were mitigated somewhat, however, when people got regular exercise and spent time outdoors.
“Our findings suggest that physical activity outdoors could counteract a deterioration in sleep quality,” Blume says.
Tips for healthy sleep
This was a relatively small study involving only Europeans. Most were women, and most were also highly educated and had a medium to high socioeconomic status. The findings may not be applicable, therefore, to other groups, including Americans.
In addition, the study relies on the participants’ own reports of their sleep patterns. Such self-reports can be inaccurate.
Still, the findings are in line with data collected from the makers of sleep-tracking fitness apps. They also underscore the need for good sleep hygiene during these stressful times — and for getting outdoors daily for physical activity.
- Start and finish work at the same time every day, meet your colleagues for virtual coffee breaks, and don’t forget to schedule enough ‘me time.’ Go to bed for 7-9 hours of sleep at the same time every day.
- Moderately exercise every day. Go for a walk or run — or work out at home. This can also be a nice routine to conclude the workday.
- Spend at least 30-60 minutes per day under the open sky preferably in the morning. If you cannot leave the house, spend sufficient time close to a window.
- Use your [screen] devices’ nightshift mode and dim light levels in the evening. Switch off all electronic devices 30-60 minutes before going to sleep.
- Create a space that is dedicated for work only, preferably as far away from your bed as possible. Never work in your bed, only sleeping and sex are allowed in bed.