Why Do We Sleep Badly On A Sunday Night?
The Debrief: Chances are that 'Sunday night insomnia' is something we've all experienced at one point
Sundays are for coffee, hangover cures and some kind of afternoon stroll in the (hopefully) sunshine. Sunday is the day that lets people exhale an ‘Ahh’ because it’s the day of the rest. The one day that is literally labelled as the day to do nothing. But there’s also one other thing that’s come to be characteristic of a Sunday: a really crap nights sleep.
Show me an office at 9am on a Monday morning and I’ll show you a group of sluggish workers still heavy with the remnants of (probably very broken) sleep. This ‘Sunday night insomnia’, as it’s been called, is a thing and many of us are experiencing it. One study found that a quarter of people in Britain suffer from it whilst a 2008 study put the figure at 60%. Whatever the figure, the proof is probably right in front of you in the form of your heavy-lidded work mate. As Dr Paul Kelley Research Associate in the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at University of Oxford, says, ‘It’s a miracle that people get to work on a Monday morning having slept and are cheerful.’
But what is it that’s messing with our Sunday night slumber? As usual, there’s a number of things at play. First, it comes down to the type of biological rhythm you naturally have: the wake/sleep pattern that you’d have if you were left to your own devices, free from the restrants of work or commitment. ‘If your normal wake/sleep pattern is very different from your working schedule then you’re more likely to find Monday a problem,’ Dr Paul Kelley explains. His study into the most sleep deprived section of society (14-24 year olds) argued the case for later school times in order to fit the natural rhythm of young people. ‘Very few people have a wake/sleep pattern that fits their employment, unless you’re self employed.’
You’ll probably have a reasonable idea of where you fall (night owl vs lark) but Dr Kelley tells me that the Munich Chronotype test is the best out there to help determine your own type. Once you’ve identified your chronotype, the way you sleep on a Sunday night, and how you feel when you wake up during the work week, will make a lot of sense. ‘It’s particularly useful to know your own chronotype, your own biological rhythm, not the one your employer gives you to see how far you are from your work or what you’re trying to make yourself do,’ Dr Kelley explained.
The problem here though, is the way the work day is typically set up – the classic 9-5 model, which Dr Kelley believes is unhelpful and out of date. ‘It’s a single fixed time but there’s huge differences between people so it can’t possibly be a good idea for people to start at 9 am. Some people yes, but most people will be later wakers or earlier wakers.’ A bad night's sleep on the Sunday can have a knock on effect for the rest of the week too: this loss of sleep is accumulative so we’re basically always working with a sleep deficit. It’s no wonder then, that a lot of us feel exhausted most of the time.
There is one thing you can do though and that’s request ‘flexi hours’. In 2014, the government brought in legislation that said every worker has the legal right to request flexi time. Sure, it might not be granted, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Dr Kelley can't stress enough the positive impact for the employer and the employee in adopting this kind of working. ‘What does the employer get out of it? A happier member of staff who will actually work better – your performance is better when you’re well rested. Crucially from an employer point of view, you’re less likely to be ill and less likely to have a mental health problem or be over-stressed. Any of those sort of emotional sides of things will be better.’ Which seems like a no-brainer really, doesn’t it?
Feeling unsatisfied with your job could be another thing harming your Sunday night's sleep. ‘If you get on well with people at work, you like them, and you like the job, that’s a huge help. The people who say that the working atmosphere in your job is important – they’re right,’ Dr Kelley explained. ‘I think that their sleep will be better the night before, because it’s all about how you feel.’ If your sleep is really starting to suffer, it’s worth assessing your attitude towards your job; it could be that it’s not the one for you or, at least, not in it’s current state.
And then there’s the stress. This could come as part of this job dissatisfaction, a particularly stressful period at work, or because you’re generally quite an anxious person. ‘If you’re stressed or if you’re the kind of person who begins to think of what’s going to happen on Monday morning or if you’re thinking about the problems you’ve been trying to avoid at the weekend are things that are on your mind, it’s no wonder you don’t get to sleep,’ says Dr Kelley. Which is why winding down is so crucial to optimal sleep.
Things like exercise during the day (not before bed – it heats the body up when body temperature should naturally fall when asleep), going outside will help, routines ensuring your sleep environment is a nice one without negative associations and that it’s dark. But relying on alcohol or sleeping pills to send you into a deep slumber is a dangerous game. ‘They knock you out for a bit, get you to sleep, but then you wake up again and that’s actually worse for you. Alcohol is a real sleep destroyer.’ Dr Kelley explained.
The technology-ban an hour or two before sleep is well known but an important point especially considering that 91% of 18-24 year olds admit to using a smartphone or computer in the two hours before sleep. ‘It really really is true. Our timing pattern is set in relation to sunlight, in sunlight that particular blue light [which comes from screens] doesn’t just go to your vision, it goes to your timing system first, so you don’t actually see or know that this is going on but it is.’ Dr Kelley explains. ‘Therefore your body thinks, “oh there’s a bit of sunlight!”’
So it’s a mixed bag: we're not necessarily doomed to suffer on a Sunday night, and if your chronotype suits your work schedule then congratulations: you have won at life. But for most of us, it doesn't. Identifying your chronotype is the first step and from that, you can adapt your schedule as best you can ensure the best lifestyle for you. It’s also important to notice when these issues are down to being unhappy at work. As Dr Kelley says, ‘ The good news is that Sunday nights can be better. The bad news is that this will be with us until we all have better jobs, flexible hours and good health- so, basically, never.’ But we live in hope.
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