Disturbed Sleep and Work Stress: A Bi-directional Link

By Will Smith
Sunday, November 1, 2015

Previous research has linked poor sleep quality to conditions such as obesity and diabetes, and a new study suggests that disturbed sleep and work stress feed each other. That finding may open doors to multipronged interventions.

The study, published in July in the journal Sleep, adds to the limited longitudinal data on the subject of disturbed sleep, says lead author and principal investigator Torbjörn Åkerstedt, PhD, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and Professor and Director of the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University.

The reciprocal links between stress and disturbed sleep were somewhat surprising, Åkerstedt says.

“There wasn’t much data previously about the effect of disturbed sleep on stress …,” he says. “We had a feeling that there should be something there, but the reverse effect was actually stronger than the direct effect of stress on sleep.”

Methodology and Findings

Using two surveys conducted two years apart, Åkerstedt and his colleagues gathered data from more than 4,800 subjects regarding the inter-related effects of disturbed sleep, work demands, control at work and social support at work.

Those with high levels of work-related stress reported higher levels of disturbed sleep two years later, and those experiencing disturbed sleep reported higher levels of work-related stress two years later.

Opportunities for Treatment

Martica Hall, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Pittsburgh’s Sleep Medicine Institute, wrote an editorial response in the same issue of Sleep. Hall says the bi-directional relationship between work stress and disturbed sleep is a clinical opportunity for healthcare providers.

“You have two targets the clinician can go after,” she says. “If it’s bi-directional, you can interrupt the cycle anywhere. … [Patients] may not be able to change their work characteristics but may be able to change their lives and work on their sleep schedule.”

The study casts the importance of sleep medicine in a new light.

“Sleep will have quite pronounced effects on perceptions of stress, and that means that sleep interventions should be a priority in medicine,” Åkerstedt says. “When you want to improve stress tolerance and things like that, you should try to improve sleep.”

Areas of Further Study

Åkerstedt is involved in a follow-up study examining the effect of disturbed sleep on situations that induce social stress: in this case, public speaking.

“We want to see if we can manipulate stress reaction in people by manipulating sleep,” he says. “We’re measuring stress hormones and other factors to see if sleep loss actually causes a more severe stress reaction.”