Sleep and stress and stress and sleep: A vicious cycle

StayWell Blog, StayWell News, Uncategorized

Picture it. You’re stressed. You’re lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, just like you have been for more than an hour. You toss. You turn. Check the clock. Ugh. It’s only been five minutes since you last looked.

Why do you feel stressed? Maybe you’ve got a big deadline looming, or a difficult decision to make. Personal problems. Money problems. Too much to do. Whatever the reason, you feel stressed, and that stress is keeping you from getting the sleep you need…which just causes more stress. The stress-sleep cycle has begun.

In this vicious cycle, being stressed can make it harder to sleep, and not getting enough sleep can make you feel even more stressed. Does the stress lead to lack of sleep, or does the lack of sleep lead to stress? It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Each person is probably different, but the data shows a clear pattern.

According to StayWell’s health assessment database, people who report five or fewer hours of sleep per night are almost four times more likely to be at high risk for stress (25.8%) than people who report 8 hours of sleep per night (6.5%). Likewise, people with low stress risk are more than 2 times as likely to report eight hours of sleep per night (27.0%) than people at high risk for stress (12.5%).

But wait, there’s more. The American Psychological Association (APA) found 21 percent of adults who don’t get enough sleep report feeling more stressed. They also found that adults who report getting fewer than eight hours of sleep each night are more likely than their well-rested peers to report signs of stress. Look at this chart. It’s enough to keep you up at night.

The sleep-stress connection
The connection between stress and sleep is part psychological and part biological. Being groggy because you don’t get enough sleep makes it harder to focus during the day, and if your job performance suffers — or if you spend all day yelling at your kids because you’re sleep-deprived and cranky — that can make you feel even more stressed.

There is also a biological connection. According to the National Sleep Foundation, insufficient sleep induces more stress hormones. Those hormones are shut down by the brain chemicals connected with deep sleep. Lack of deep sleep means less of those hormone-quieting chemicals, which means more stress, which means less sleep, which means more stress, which means…You get the picture.

And, just to make things extra interesting, stress hormones tend to peak in the afternoon and early evening, right around the time you should be relaxing and getting ready for a good night’s sleep.

Too much stress is bad for your health in other ways, too. Excessive stress has been linked to headaches, muscle pain, depression, and more. People with long-term stress problems are prone to more viral infections, like the flu and the common cold. Stress can make it harder to recover from an illness. In extreme cases, it can even trigger heart attacks.

Destress yourself, destress your employees
Inadequate sleep is not an uncommon thing. StayWell data shows 35% of employees report less than seven hours of sleep and 75% report less than eight hours of sleep, on average each night. On top of that, a 2014 Willis Towers Watson Global Workforce survey found that 51% of U.S. workers who report high stress levels say they are disengaged at work, and only 9% said they are engaged. The situation was almost exactly opposite among low-stress workers, where 57% reported being engaged, and only 8% said they were disengaged.

What’s an employer to do?

Well it helps to have a good idea what is stressing out your employees. According to StayWell’s employee database, sources of stress vary a great deal by age. This isn’t exactly surprising, but it’s an important reminder that everyone is different and knowing their stressors can help you devise solutions.


Next, it’s important to remember that the workplace can be a significant source of stress, but it also provides opportunities to influence employee behavior and health.

  • Lead by example. If employees see their boss maintaining a healthy work-life balance, they’ll feel more comfortable doing the same.
  • Make sure jobs are flexible and well designed. Allowing employees to schedule their work and home lives so they support each other can ease potential stress points.
  • Focus on helping employees feel valued. Employees that feel valued tend to have better mental health and job performance.
  • Consult employees on changes that are likely to affect them, and encourage them to ask questions.
  • Create opportunities for social interaction. This has been associated with emotional well-being.
  • Set realistic goals. If employees feel like they have to work crazy hours just to do their job, they’ll burn out quickly.

Don’t expect an easy, one-size-fits-all solution, and try not to get frustrated. Managing employee stress is hard. People are complicated, and what stresses one out might be no big deal for another.

That’s why StayWell offers an array of tools to meet each individual employee wherever they happen to be in the sleep-stress cycle and the stages of change. Health coaching is a well-known approach that can address whatever health concerns an individual may have. Since talking with a live coach isn’t for everyone, StayWell also offers Self-Directed Coaching, which allows people to go at their own pace. In addition, we provide a variety of health challenges, digital workshops, and our StayWell online.

There’s more to the connection between sleep and well-being. StayWell Sleep educates individuals with articles, videos and other resources that are all designed to build a better understanding of both the importance of sleep and how to improve sleep habits.

Stay tuned for future blogs on the benefits of sleep and how it affects health, but in the meantime, contact to learn more.

In good health,
Stefan Gingerich, MS
StayWell Senior Research Analyst

Related posts by Stefan Gingerich, MS on the topic of sleep:

Is lack of sleep weighing you down?
A peek behind the science and health impact of sleep
When counting sheep doesn’t work