The Social Work Sleep Guide: 6 steps to Getting Better Sleep
Severe sleep difficulties are thought to affect around 3 in every 10 people, with women reporting slightly poorer sleep than their male counterparts. Experts recommend between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. However, only 2 out of 3 of us are getting that amount.
Lack of sleep can have severe health consequences, including:
- high blood pressure
- increased risk of stroke
- heart disease
Less known impacts include:
- a less active sex life
- losing or gaining weight
- premature ageing of the skin
- impairing of judgement
On the other hand, benefits of quality sleep include improved:
- immune system functioning
- overall health
Furthermore, financial boffins have suggested that the cost of poor sleep is around £40 billion per year in the UK and $411 billion in the USA. Not exactly chump change.
So, where does social work sleep fit in?
The truth is, we know very little. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune ranked social work as the 6th most sleep deprived job.
I know, I thought it would at least be in the top 3 too.
A study undertaken last year, with social workers in England, found concerning levels of poor sleep among participants. More than 62% of participants reported difficulties sleeping.
Gender had no bearing on sleep normality.
Neither did caseload size.
However, the field of social work did yield some interesting results. Permanency and transition social workers reported the worst sleep, followed by child protection practitioners, and adult mental health workers.
One anonymous social worker commented:
“I haven’t slept properly since I started this Social Work job…there’s too much to worry about…my mind never stops”
Interestingly, this study suggests that good supervision, appropriate resources, and empathetic management all contribute to good sleep among social workers. Sadly, none of these are guaranteed at work.
So, what can the individual social worker do?
1:Quit Caffeine Late in the Day (Sorry Coffee Lovers!)
I want someone to research the average daily coffee consumption among social workers. I bet it is in double figures (unless you’re reading this from England. Then we should look at cups of tea). Seriously though, caffeine is a stimulant and great for perking you up first thing, or throughout the day.
According to Psychology Today, caffeine ingested as late as 6 hours before you go to sleep can significantly interfere with the amount of sleep you get, including quality. Somewhat contradictory, as I write this, it’s 8am and I am on my 4th cup of joe. Sometimes it’s hard to practice what you preach.
(Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, some soft drinks, chocolate, and some medications. Up to three cups per day is thought to make you a moderate consumer.)
2:Try and Let Go
A common complaint among social workers is when they get into bed, work starts swirling around their minds.
‘Did I finish that report?’
‘Did I make the right call?’
‘I don’t want to go to work tomorrow!’.
Try to accept that you’ve done what you can. You’re only one person. Recently, a dialectal behaviour specialist suggested letting go at night can be done by listening to repetitive sounds, such as whale noises, waterfalls, or the sound of the road. Personally, I have been listening to documentaries about the doomed RMS Titanic. Though, I hope that’s not a subliminal prediction of my impending doom.
If you find letting go hard, you may want to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is attaining the awareness and acceptance of your feelings, thoughts, and environment. Mindfulness techniques involve controlled breathing. There are thousands of websites, including YouTube videos, that show how to practice mindfulness. Different approaches work for different people. Go into it with an open mind.
It’s my belief that mindfulness will become one of the most popular tools to address stress, burnout, and anxiety in social work. Previous research, including my own with co-author Sheena Asthana, suggests that it is the social work system that is likely responsible for some of the challenges facing the workforce. And, there is little evidence that shows appropriate change within the system is likely.
4:Avoid Alcohol and Nicotine Before Bed
Caffeine is not the only chemical you should avoid before bed. Nicotine and alcohol also act as stimulants that may affect your quality and quantity of sleep.
I used to cringe when I heard the word exercise. Saying it would guarantee you a scathing look from me would be an understatement. However, against my better judgement, I accepted an invitation to play squash whilst working within a child protection team, and was pleasantly surprised how it impacted by sleep problems.
Why was this the case?
According to the Harvard Medical School, exercising at the correct time (3 hours before bed or more) assists in falling and maintaining sleep. Moreover, the benefits of exercise don’t stop at sleep. Exercise also discharges cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), which is thought to help with stress and mental health.
Regular exercise can also reduce high blood pressure and make you feel more awake. How can you fit this into your busy schedule, I hear you ask? Play a sport. Or, if you dislike organised exercise, be creative: walk to get lunch, park your car a little further away, or take the stairs.
6:Make Use of Technology
I recently discovered a fancy new (to me) feature on my iPhone. It allows me to get a bedtime reminder. You can tell your phone what time you want to get up, how many hours of sleep you want, and it will send you a notification reminding you it’s bed time! And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be happy to find out it doesn’t answer back if you say, ‘just one more episode on Netflix!’.
Technology doesn’t stop there. There are also apps to monitor your sleep and track your exercise. Sometimes quantifying or visualising your efforts makes a big difference. It may help you identify when you slept well and what you did differently that night. Additionally, if you have a snoring partner keeping you awake, get one of those little devices you stick in there pillow to prevent it. Or, give them an old-fashioned elbow to the ribs? If you choose this risky method, I would not hesitate to recommend that you also pretend to be asleep immediately afterwards.
Summing up, research suggests that poor sleep is prevalent among social workers. The impact of poor sleep can be serious, and you need to look after yourself. Perhaps we are beginning to understand how organisations can support good sleep through quality supervision, understanding stresses of the job, and providing adequate resources. Sadly, the necessary changes are unlikely to happen anytime soon. However, social workers can take personal steps to address poor sleep.
Oliver Beer is a researcher and registered Social Worker. You can follow him on Twitter @