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Guide to: Sleep and self employment

Poorer sleep is affecting many of us during the pandemic - let's explore why and what you can do to improve your sleep.

Did you sleep well?

Did you know there's something you can do to help your mental health that's so simple, you can do it in your sleep? Hint: it's sleeping!

Unfortunately, for large numbers of people, sleep isn't something that comes so naturally, especially at the moment, so in this resource, we look at the importance of sleep as part of our working wellbeing plan, and how we can make improvements to our sleep health.

If you're not sleeping well, it could be a sign of something worrying you. If you're not sleeping well, it could lead to more stress and anxiety. It can easily become a vicious cycle.

Physical health and mental health are intertwined. It’s easy to remember the obvious ways to look after our physical health - exercise and diet, but often, sleep health can often be overlooked as a pillar of of our overall wellbeing.

Our sleep health is both a great signal to see how we're doing right now, as well as something which we can work on, with dramatic benefits to our emotional and physical wellbeing.

Getting to know sleep

The Pandemic and Sleep

Right now our sleep patterns have been disrupted by a year of unusually high levels of stress and uncertainty. According to the British Sleep Society, three-quarters of the UK have noticed their sleep patterns change during the pandemic, with more than half saying their sleep is not restorative.

If we’re not sleeping well, our time awake is going to be harder - less focus, less motivation, and a feeling of sluggishness.

It’s important to remember though: how you’re sleeping right now is not something you’re stuck with forever - you can improve how well you’re sleeping, or your sleep health.

What does good sleep health mean?

Good sleep health doesn’t just mean how long you sleep, but rather how well you sleep. You could be getting 10 hours of broken sleep and feel dreadful, or 6 hours of great sleep and feel ready to go. Many parents already know the difference here.

And the myth of needing a good “8 hours sleep a night”? - everyone needs different things, how much sleep we need really varies, not only across our lifetimes, but also to what our needs are at the time.

But focusing on only how many hours you are getting can be misleading, it’s more important to look at good sleep, restorative unbroken deep sleep, falling asleep and waking up naturally. And right now, as our sleep patterns are being heavily influenced by our habits changing due to lockdown, as well as increased levels of stress, the quality of our sleep is in decline.

Why and how stress affects sleep

When you’re stressed, the “fight or flight” mechanisms in your body are active even whilst you’re asleep. The part of our brain which is design to run away from predators is keeping us slightly alert, even when sleeping, impacting the depth and quality of our sleep. During periods of chronic ongoing stress, as we’ve all been under for the past year, our body feels like we’re in a constant state of danger, and we shouldn’t be sleeping - so even if you’re falling asleep quickly, you might be waking up throughout the night.

It can often prevent us from getting to sleep in the first place too - a racing mind before bedtime isn’t conducive to winding down, and our brain can often be turning the day over and over, stopping us our minds taking a break. Again, even if we manage to fall asleep, we might wake through the night, still with over-active thoughts, which prevents us from falling back to sleep again.

All of this can start a vicious cycle. We wake up the following morning, without feeling rested - our day is not as productive or fruitful as perhaps we’d have liked, or we’re struggling with feeling tired all day. This then leads to going to bed earlier, and still waking through the night, or even anxiety about going to bed, worrying that we’ll have another bad night sleep, which keeps us awake.

Sleep and Self-Employment

For the self-employed, this cycle can be especially damaging - as we quite often feel like we have little option other than to "push on through". Perhaps if notifications are pinging to remind us there's client email to check and we just dip into our phone at bedtime; maybe concerns around a late payment meaning you're close to your overdraft this month so you need to get that other project done sooner to close the gap; or simply worrying that there's not enough work, so you push yourself even harder, disrupting sleep further, making it harder to get stuff done during the way, or even leading to mistakes being made.

It's both literally and figuratively true that we often take our work home with us - and being able to switch off from the day's work and concerns can be so much harder, so work worries can easily spill into impacting our sleep. Research in the US suggests that three-quarters of self-employed work late into the night, and 1 in 3 feel unable to finish work during the day time.

For those who are starting out, or perhaps running a side-project or freelancing in addition to other responsibilities, juggling the workload can mean longer days, and even worse, the "hustle culture" mindset of squeezing every single moment out of a day, leads to people prioritising working over wellbeing.

If you don't take a step back to address our sleep health, it can easily become an issue - and whilst sleep might not seem like a critical part of our business plan, without good restorative sleep, we're less about to do a good job. Making good sleep a chapter of our working wellbeing plan is just as important as getting the next client.

Tackling poor sleep

Three common issues

Struggling to sleep - anxiety and stress can often lead to an overactive mind, with you left lying awake, turning thoughts over and over. Whilst you might get into bed at a sensible time, you might not actually be asleep until much later - leaving you feeling agitated, or even worrying about not being able to sleep before you get into bed.

Struggling to stay asleep - perhaps you fall asleep easily enough, but you're not getting continuous sleep, waking periodically through the night - and again, once you're awake, perhaps you struggle to get to sleep again.

Waking without feeling rested / struggling to stay awake - perhaps you get plenty of sleep, in fact, you keep adding more and more hours, yet you just don't feel rested when you wake up. This in turn leads to feeling sleepy during the day, and might even mean you need to nap or fall asleep during the day, which can further disrupt your sleep at night.

If you're experiencing any of these situations, for more than just a couple of nights in any month, you might be suffering with insomnia. But no matter how your sleep is troubling you though, there's a number of tangible steps you can take, recommended by experts in sleep health, for addressing poor sleep health.

Six key things to try

+ Make the bedroom for sleeping only

The first is the simplest to address - the bedroom is for sleep and sex only. That means no reading, no doomscrolling, no phones by the bed. By establishing this rule, you reinforce your relationship with the room, and over time associate your bedroom with sleep once again. If you want to read, do it somewhere else. Even if you're waking up in the middle of the night, and lying awake, try and get up, and return to bed when you're ready to sleep. Removing your mobile phone from the bedside is helpful too. Not only does the light from the screen disrupt sleep, you'll be less tempted to "just check" something.

+ Establish a sleep routine

Try and get into a routine when it comes to sleep - going to sleep at the same time each night, waking up at the same time each morning. Your body will adjust to the routine, and your sleeping patterns will align, meaning you're more likely to wake naturally and feel better rested. Don't be tempted to have long lie-ins, and even if you're exhausted, stick to your bedtime. That means no napping during the day even if you're tempted. Add some time before you sleep to wind-down: make any notes for things you want to do tomorrow, put away your devices, and gently slow down before bed.

+ Make more of the natural light

Make the most of getting outside during the day, and keep your indoors as light and airy as possible. Your body is affected by natural light, so make sure your bedroom is dark at night, and home light during the day. Get some outside time when you wake up - perhaps going for a walk before starting the day.

+ Fix your bedroom environment

Make your bedroom suitable for sleep. Try to make it dark: dind any annoying blinking lights and switch them off, consider investing in blackout blinds if you find your room is light. Try to ensure the temperature is cool but not cold (the optimum is between 15-22ºC), and reduce any distracting sounds as much as possible.

+ Improve your diet and exercise

Avoid any stimulants after 3pm - this means caffeine, nicotine, and refined sugars, like fizzy drinks or sweets. This means avoiding alcohol too. Booze can help you fall asleep quicker, but it disrupts REM sleep, which is where we dream and is the mentally restorative sleep phase. Give yourself a couple of hours after eating before sleeping - this gives you time to digest your food before getting into bed. If you need to eat, keep food light and digestable, like fruit or vegetables. Exercise during the day is fantastic, it'll help you sleep more soundly, but avoid exercise too close to bedtime. Studies show that people who take part in exercise less than one hour before bedtime took longer to fall asleep and had poorer sleep quality.

+ Dealing with an overactive mind

If you find your mind is racing whilst you're trying to sleep, or you're waking up with thoughts swirling around in your head, keep a notebook and pencil next to your bed, and get the thoughts out of your brain on to paper. This can help "put them away" for the night, so you're able to deal with them the following day. Meditation exercises can help too, focusing your mind on your breathing rather than thoughts. Apps like headspace and bhuddify are free, offer a great introduction to meditation, and have dedicated content to encouraging good sleep - but remember, don't take your phone into the bedroom, do it in another room, and then when you've calmed your mind, return to bed.

Other causes of poor sleep

There might be other underlying causes of poor sleep which are important to be aware of too - for example, those who suffer with sleep apnea - where your breathing stops and starts while you sleep, those with depression or anxiety, bipolar or obsessive-compulsive conditions are less likely to be sleeping well, it can be associated with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other conditions too.

The bottom line

If you've been feeling like you've had poor sleep for more than a couple of weeks, if changing your sleep habits has not helped, if poor sleep is affecting your daily life, speak to your GP for advice.

Sleep is such an important foundation of your physical and emotional health that investing in making some small positive changes can have significantly large positive impacts - more clarity, more energy and more resilience for dealing with the day.

Seeking further support

If you feel like you'd like to find further support on improving your sleep health, the following resources can be helpful:

NHS guide to Insomnia
Information on insomnia, and a simple test to measure your sleep health

NHS Sleep Resources
Basic guides to your sleep health and restoring your energy levels

Mental Health Foundation
A downloadable guide to sleep

The Sleep Charity
A range of guides and advice

30 Day Sleep Plan
From the Sleep Charity, an action plan to getting better sleep

An NHS approved course for tackling insomnia, which Leapers fully endorse.