What You Need to Know About Sleep and the Pandemic
What You Need to Know About Sleep and the Pandemic

We’ve heard a lot about the importance of sleep in recent years, but during the pandemic, it is a pillar of health and wellness, said Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a professor with the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago, in a recent International Foundation webcast. “The current view of sleep is that it is one of the three most important behavioral factors in health and wellness, together with exercise and good nutrition,” she explained.

In fact, lack of sleep can be lethal. Sleeping less than six hours a night has been associated with a 12% increased risk of death—or nine years of life, based on U.S. average life expectancy, she added.

How much sleep do you need?

Middle-age and older adults need about 6.5 hours per night at a minimum, including 50 to 100 minutes of REM sleep and 30 to 80 minutes of deep sleep, said Van Cauter. Sleep also needs to be regular and coincide with the biological night—which poses issues for shift workers, for example.

COVID-19 Return to the Workplace Strategies Virtual Conference

Our modern, fast-paced and often stressful lifestyle—including jobs that require people to work around the clock and involve continual exposure to screens—creates some additional sleep challenges, she explained. In the U.S., for example, 30% to 40% of the population is reporting less than 6 hours of sleep, particularly among Black and Hispanic individuals.

What happens when you are sleep-deprived? Regularly not getting enough sleep can cause drowsiness, attention deficits and mood changes, as well as impaired memory and higher executive function (which helps guide our decision making). It also increases health risks relating to obesity, diabetes, several cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, she added.

How has the pandemic impacted sleep?

According to U.S. data from Sleep Number (which uses “smart beds” to track and monitor individuals’ sleep metrics), on average, lockdown conditions increased restful sleep. For those who suddenly found themselves working from home, the lack of commute often meant they could sleep in a little longer. However, for those with existing sleep disturbances like insomnia, those conditions got worse, noted Van Cauter.

There’s significant evidence that sleep protects against viruses like the common cold, and lack of sleep can increase your chances of getting sick. “If you look at the components of the immune system, they are really dependent on sleep and time of day—and as soon as there is insufficient sleep, there is havoc in the system,” she explained.

Research on other vaccines—such as those for the flu and hepatitis A and B—has shown that insufficient sleep is also associated with impaired immune response. For example, in an influenza study where sleep was restricted for four days prior to vaccination, the vaccine’s effectiveness was cut in half.

“The immune response to vaccination is impaired by insufficient sleep, and this is likely to hold for the COVID-19 vaccines as well,” Van Cauter added.

To help boost the immune system’s response, it’s advisable to get a good night’s sleep for several days preceding vaccination, she suggested. But the advantages of restful sleep extend far beyond that.

“Good sleep hygiene strengthens the immune system. It may reduce the risk of infection, decrease the severity of infection and limit the severity of inflammation,” Van Cauter concluded.

Learn More

International Foundation members can watch the webcast Sleep Challenges During the Pandemic on demand. You can also check out the Talking Benefits podcast episode: The Benefits of Sleep: A to ZZZZZZ.

Alyssa Hodder
Director, Education and Outreach – Canada

Fraud Prevention Institute for Employee Benefit Plans

The latest from Word on Benefits:

Alyssa Hodder

Communications Manager at the International Foundation

Favorite Foundation Product: The Word on Benefits Blog

Benefits-Related Topics That Grab Her Attention: Wellness, work/life balance, retirement security, parental leave policies and unique and trending perks.​

Favorite Foundation Event:The day we wait all year forNational Employee Benefits Day!

Personal Insight: Brenda goes with the flow and this approach to life puts everyone around her at ease. Brenda enjoys the mix of roles she plays from communications pro to mom and wife.

Recommended Posts

The Multiemployer Retirement Plan Landscape: DB Takeaways

Justin Held, CEBS

According to recent data from Horizon Actuarial Services, LLC and the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, the fifteen-year period between 2006 and 2020 was turbulent for multiemployer defined benefit (DB) pension plans. Financial markets were volatile, and 2008 saw the biggest […]

The DOL Retirement Security Final Rule: Highlights for Plan Sponsors

Jenny Gartman, CEBS

On April 25, 2024, the Department of Labor (DOL) published the retirement security final rule defining fiduciary status for investment advice to retirement investors under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). It is set to […]

Health Plan Oncology Offerings—Designing the Best Possible Benefit

Anne Newhouse

In recent years, various sources including SunLife and the Business Group on Health have reported that cancer leads high-cost health claims for self-funded plans. Claims data shows the top three diagnoses currently driving claims are cancer, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases. It’s no […]