Let’s face it: We work hard, our stress levels are rising and we are sleeping less. The frenetic pace of our demanding, 24-7 lifestyles is leaving us frazzled, multitasking, working more, beholden to our electronic devices and either unable to find the time to sleep or too stressed out to fall asleep.

As a result, many of us end up trapped in an insidious cycle of escalating stress and exhaustion that is negatively impacting every aspect of our lives.

The perfect storm

Workplace stress combined with inadequate sleep is a recipe for disaster. Increasingly, research indicates a reciprocal relationship between sleep and stress (especially work stress) that creates the potential for a vicious cycle.

The more stressed work leaves us, the harder it is to sleep. The harder it is to sleep, the less sleep we get. The less sleep we get, the more stressed we become and the less able we are to respond appropriately to the stressors in our lives. The stress and exhaustion combine to further undermine how we cope, think, feel, perform, react, make decisions and problem solve, further impairing us.

Workplace stress

Numerous studies show that the workplace is by far the major source of stress for American adults. According to the 2013 Work Stress Survey, stress in the workplace is rising, and more than 8 in 10 employed Americans said they are stressed out on the job. A mere 17 percent of workers polled said that nothing about their jobs causes them stress.

"Making sufficient sleep a personal, family, and corporate value may just be the stress reliever we have all been looking for."

Prolonged or constant stress can be detrimental to performance, productivity, safety and quality of life. Workplace stress can leave us unmotivated, unable to concentrate, irritable, dissatisfied with our jobs, anxious, depressed and unable to sleep. Studies have shown that workplace stress increases the risk of health problems, including weakened immune systems, hypertension and heart disease. In terms of healthcare expenses, workplace stress-related health problems carry a hefty price tag, which by some estimates has exceeded $180 billion.

Rethinking sleep

Sufficient sleep is not a luxury, but a biological need. And for the majority of adults, that means 7–9 hours of shuteye per night. Contrary to popular belief, it is not possible to function at your optimum level on less sleep than needed.

As if workplace stress and demands and the toll they take on us aren’t enough, we live and work in a culture that applauds burning the candle at both ends, respects long hours and expects constant contact, all while glorifying sleeplessness. As a consequence, too many of us disrespect or ignore the critical need our minds and bodies have for sleep—or we just don’t make time for it—and this renders us increasingly vulnerable to the serious problems that accompany lack of sleep.

Compounding the problem is that sleep deprivation sets a trap for the unsuspecting stressed and sleepless among us. We fail to notice when sleep deprivation causes our performance to plummet. However tired we are, we think we’re fine—but we’re not. In effect, our sleep loss impairs our prefrontal cortex, and we simply don’t “see” just how our performance is negatively impacted by our sleep deficiency. In effect, if we don’t get sleep, we just don’t get it.

Stressing the system

Similar to the negative consequences of stress, sleep deficits result in an increase in stress hormones and appetite, an impaired metabolism and immune system, impaired performance, accidents, relationship problems, an inability to focus and problem solve and mood problems like anger and depression. Conversely, sufficient sleep provides us with resilience, improved physical and emotional health, clarity of thought, improved problem solving, motivation, improved outlook, positivity and mental toughness—all effective countermeasures to stress and its unwanted consequences.

Because of the cause-and-effect relationship between stress and sleep, it is imperative that sufficient sleep must be the first consideration in any attempt to manage, mitigate or prevent stress. By prioritizing and managing sleep, we are better able to manage stress—thereby feeling and performing our best—and are better equipped to handle the inevitable stressors that are part of modern life.

Undoubtedly, workplace stress is a leading cause of insomnia. Considered the most common sleep complaint, insomnia increases stress hormones, so it should come as no surprise that adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night are also more likely to report the symptoms of stress. Not all insomnia is caused by workplace stress, but when stress affects our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, it is essential that good sleep habits be employed, including relaxation techniques, winding down and not staying in bed when sleep is elusive. More important, insomnia—or any sleep problem for that matter—should never be ignored because persistent sleep problems are linked to serious health problems. Seeking treatment from a sleep specialist for problematic sleep issues is essential to maintain overall health and well-being.

Stress management

Using both sleep management and stress management techniques and strategies is a synergistic and effective approach to breaking the sleep-stress cycle:

  • Take naps. Research has shown that napping has both stress-relieving and immune-enhancing effects.

  • Make healthy food choices. Sufficient sleep will help you do this, which will help you feel better and less stressed.

  • Get daily exercise. Exercise reduces anxiety and helps you sleep while sufficient sleep makes it more likely to exercise.

  • Practice yoga and meditation to enhance relaxation and sleep while lowering stress.

  • Disengage from work when away from work. Limit work-related emails, texts and phone calls. Power down one hour prior to bedtime.

  • Don’t make a habit of working overtime. You will work smarter, not harder, with sufficient sleep.

  • Engage in a relaxing and consistent bedtime ritual, including warm baths, aromatherapy and soft music to counter nighttime stress.

  • Ensure a quiet sleep environment. Noise is stressful and disrupts sleep.

  • Turn your bedroom into a relaxing sleep sanctuary. Invest in a comfortable mattress and a serene, clutter-free décor.

  • Turn the clock face away from you at night. Watching it will only increase your anxiety and disrupt your sleep.

  • Realize that waking up in the middle of the night is common. You’re more likely to return to sleep if the room is dark and quiet.

  • Avoid harried wake-up routines and harried mornings. Engage in a pleasurable morning routine to make waking up more relaxing.

  • Ensure that your employer or employee assistance program is “sleep aware.” Insufficient sleep and poor sleep habits represent significant workplace health, productivity, liability and cost issues.

  • Work schedules should support sufficient sleep times. Telecommuting, staggered schedules, sanctioned workplace napping and flex times may be viable, sleep-friendly options.

  • Effective treatment for insomnia is available. Research has demonstrated that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I) is an effective treatment for insomnia.

The key to stress reduction in the workplace is to prevent it, or at least mitigate it, whenever possible. And this can be accomplished through sufficient sleep. The dual approach of taking control of sleep and stress will go a long way in stress prevention and improved sleep quality.

The fact is this: sleep is foundational, and as such, it’s imperative that we put sufficient sleep in first place in our efforts to reduce and manage workplace stress. Making sufficient sleep a personal, family, and corporate value may just be the stress reliever we have all been looking for.