Sleep deprivation may be leading to depression, not the other way around

It’s been long assumed – and at times simply taken as a given – that sleep deprivation is a secondary effect of mental health disturbance. The common understanding goes that we become mentally unstable, whether that is depression or anxiety, and thus our sleep is heavily affected; keeping us up at night with worrying thoughts. Yet according to Alice Gregory, Professor of psychology and sleep researcher at Goldsmiths University London, the idea that this notion could be exactly the other way around might have been soarly overlooked. “Over the past decade or so it has become increasingly clear that disturbed sleep often comes before an episode of depression, not afterwards,” Gregory writes in a recent article. 

In a survey conducted through its readers, The Guardian asked people with demanding jobs to give their average hours of sleep each night, what their work is and if it had affected their mental state. Various readers responded, from teachers and barristers, to hospitality workers and air attendants and what is clear through this small study was that regardless of the profession, the average hours of sleep for each of the respondents varied between 4 to 6 hours, which according to the Sleep Foundation is 2 hours below what a person above the age of 18 should be sleeping each night in order to maintain a their physical and mental health. All of the respondents told The Guardian that they feel the mental tool of their work and often times the short sleep hours keep them in a fragile state of mind throughout the day.

So if we think back to Gregory’s point that perhaps insomnia should no longer be regarded as a secondary effect of depression but the other way around, this study perfectly amplifies her point. A missed night’s sleep can make us feel teary throughout the day, or hypersensitive in social situations. Gregory writes extensively on how our ability to regulate emotions becomes limited after a bad night’s sleep and will eventually increase unless the sleep debt is paid off to our bodies.

Another reason why a lack of sleep can lead to depression is the low motivational energy a person might have following a bad night’s sleep. Cancelling evening plans for example often happens as a result of accumulating fatigue throughout the day, and it is exactly this type of social activity that helps to balance an individual’s work and life and keep depressive behaviour at bay. Thus, as companies advance in their wellbeing programmes for employees, including healthy food at work, encouragement of exercise and even meditation rooms in the workplace, it is crucial napping rooms aren’t taken as a slight gesture or a cool design trait, but as a highly prioritised recommendation for employees’ benefits. Just last week mattress company Casper opened a nap bar in the centre of Manhattan, saying how it was "Noticing that everyone was downing green juice and wearing fitness trackers — but falling asleep at their desks — Casper set out to champion sleep as an essential pillar of wellness."

From reduced productivity at work to an increased number of sick days as a result of mental health distress, we need to collectively acknowledge that disturbed sleep is certainly not a byproduct of mental ill health and prioritising our sleep will be not just the future of wellbeing, but the future of the workplace too.