- Early morning full spectrum sunlight helps you fall asleep faster, sleep better, and wake up in a better mood.
- Workspaces that encourage movement during the day reduce your stress and help you sleep better at night.
- Keep noise at less than 50 dB and relative humidity more than 30% and less than 60% to sleep better at night.
It’s not surprising that a good mattress can help you sleep, but, as I describe in my book, Well at Work: Creating Wellbeing in Any Workspace, it turns out that it’s not only what you do at night that affects your sleep, but what you do during the day that affects it as well. Surprisingly, the data from our studies with the U.S. General Services Administration, linking data from wearable health tracking devices to environmental measures, showed that people take their workspaces home with them at night.
So, what can you do during the day to help you sleep at night? Think light, sound, temperature, humidity, and spaces that reduce stress and enhance movement.
First there is light. All animals, including humans, have what is known as a ‘third eye’ – nerve cells on the retina that respond not just to light in the visible color spectrum but to the shorter wavelengths of light close to the blues and violets of the rainbow. When full-spectrum sunlight hits those cells, they send electrical signals to the brain’s internal clock, which blocks the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and triggers the release of stress hormones. Together, these act like an internal alarm clock that wakes you up. As the sunlight wanes and becomes redder, the brain releases melatonin, which sends you off to sleep.
When Mariana Figueiro, then a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Upstate New York, and the GSA team studied hundreds of federal workers in dozens of federal buildings in the U.S. and in American embassies around the world, they found that people who were consistently directly exposed to bright sunlight streaming through their office windows between eight in the morning and noon fell asleep faster that night, had better sleep quality, and were in a better mood the next day.
If you don’t have the luxury of placing your desk beside a window or installing a skylight, a lamp that gives off full spectrum LED lighting that changes with the rhythms of the sun will help.
But if you are exposed to blue light at nighttime, it can impair your sleep. Mariana Figueiro found that in the evening, just 35 to 40 minutes of exposure to bright blue light – the kind that comes off computer screens or smartphones – can have the same energizing effect as a cup of coffee. To counter this, some computers and mobile devices now have settings that automatically shift the backlit screen away from the blue wavelengths and towards the red at a designated time. You can also purchase glasses and even contact lenses that filter out blue light.
Lighting isn’t the only aspect of your office environment that affects your sleep. The chest-worn heart monitors in our GSA studies showed that workers who were most active during the day (those in the open office design spaces) – slept better than those who were less active (those who worked in cubicles or private offices). So, the more you keep moving throughout the day, the better you will sleep at night.
Temperature and humidity also impact sleep. A warm bath before bed, a soft, warm but breathable blanket, mattresses that adjust to your optimal temperature, even a pair of socks, can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more efficiently and deeply. The reason these things work is that we are all attuned not only to the rhythms of the sun’s light, but also to the rhythms of its heat. Your core body temperature – that is, the temperature of your internal organs, cools as the afternoon turns to evening – just like the outside temperature does as the sun sets, and a cool core body temperature is needed for optimal sleep.
Stress during the day also impairs your sleep at night. Of course, you can’t get rid of all stressors to which you are exposed, but you can modify the spaces where you work to help reduce your stress. Think: temperature, humidity, noise, and spaces that foster routines and encourage movement.
Too much heat during the day coupled with humidity (greater than 60 percent) will increase your stress response, and that will in turn impair your sleep and leave you sleepy the next day.
And then there is noise. Research on the effects of noise in hospital environments, where equipment could be as loud as a motorcycle firing at close range – suggests that the loud sounds you are exposed to during the day can be detrimental to your sleep at night. In one study, half the ceiling tiles in an intensive care unit in Sweden were replaced with more sound-absorbing tiles, without the staff being made aware of the change. When the nurses worked in the half with greater sound buffering, they slept better when they went home after their shifts. This is likely because loud noise throughout the day raised their stress levels, which in turn impaired their sleep later on.
In contrast, some sounds can help you sleep. White noise masks or distracts you from jarring sounds that might wake you up. Lower pitch sounds are more pleasant to listen to. Babies fall asleep to the low pitch sounds of lullabies, or even to the drone of a vacuum cleaner. In fact, researchers studying babies in a neonatal unit found that 80 percent of the babies fell asleep within five minutes when surrounded by white noise, while only 25 percent fell asleep without it.
Sounds of nature can be calming because they remind you of a peaceful time and place. There are many apps offering sounds to help lull you to sleep, including gentle rain on the roof, rhythmic ocean waves, the wind in the trees, a hooting owl, and calming music. You can even download sounds of vacuum cleaner noise if you prefer not to do the vacuuming at night to get your child to fall asleep!
If you work from home, and your bedroom doubles as your only office space, you may have a different problem that can interfere with your sleep in a different way. Routines are important for good sleep hygiene, and one important routine that helps you sleep is to designate the bed for mainly one activity: sleep. So, try to physically separate your workspace from your bed, perhaps by placing a screen, a few folding tables, other furniture, or plants between them, clearly designating one space for sleep and another for work.
The reason is, we are all creatures of habit, and all animals learn to associate places and characteristics of spaces with whatever activities they do in those spaces. If you repeatedly work, watch a stimulating television program, or surf the internet in or on your bed, your brain will associate all those activities with the bed, and keep you alert and ready to engage in them even when you should be falling asleep. You can read in bed to help you fall asleep but try not to read anything too exciting or stimulating. You can have sex in bed before you sleep. But that’s about all you should be doing in your bed other than sleeping.
When I first saw the data in our GSA study showing how workers in the refurbished light and airy quieter open office space were less stressed than those in the noisy, dark, and dank old space, I was shocked at how much the retrofitted office design impacted the workers’ stress levels even while they slept at night. But our subsequent studies also showed that workers in open office design, who moved more during the day, were less stressed when they went home, and also took less time to fall asleep, slept more efficiently and were less fatigued during the day.
So, designing your workspace to encourage movement, bring in lots of morning daylight and reduce stress with optimal sound, temperature and humidity, can help you sleep better at night!
5 takeaways to do during the day to ensure a peaceful slumber at night:
- Move more during the day.
- Drink in the morning sun.
- Avoid bright, blue, full spectrum light in the evening – shift your lighting to the redder zones.
- Keep the temperature and humidity in your workspace in the comfort range.
- Avoid noisy workspaces and listen instead to calming music or nature sounds.
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