A supportive boss can help you sleep at night

March 5, 2021
Want a good night's sleep? Unplug from work. (Damir Spanic/Unsplash)

Want a good night's sleep? Unplug from work. (Damir Spanic/Unsplash)

Swiss and German researchers have found that perceived social support from colleagues and supervisors improves workers’ sleep quality by helping them detach, or “unplug,” from their jobs in their off hours, painting a more complex picture of the relationship between sleep and work.

The study, published Feb. 19 in Work & Stress, was inspired by previous research on detachment. The researchers used data from the GESIS Panel, a representative sample of the adult population in Germany developed by GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences. Data from 1,856 participants at one point in time were compared with data from six months later. This two-wave design allowed the researchers to examine how job demands affected sleep quality over time. The study was also the first to examine the interplay of job demands, detachment and sleep quality using such a representative sample.

“Sleep problems have increased in recent years, especially among employees, and I think this information is particularly worrying, as sleep affects performance, safety and physical and mental health,” explained lead author Eva Matick, a doctoral researcher at Philipps-University of Marburg. “In the field of occupational health management, however, sleep has received relatively little attention in the past compared to the topics of exercise or nutrition.”

During the first wave, participants were asked about their job demands, perceived social support, detachment and sleep quality. They filled out questionnaires indicating their level of agreement with various assertions — for example, on a scale of 1 to 5 from “not true at all” to “totally true,” rating whether their coworkers and supervisors help them out at work when it becomes necessary. Six months later, they were surveyed again about the quality of their sleep.

Matick says she has considered running a longer longitudinal study to better understand how sleep quality changes over time. “The dataset provided to us did not allow it,” she explained.

When compared to part-time workers, full-time workers had higher job demands and found it more difficult to detach from their jobs. Supervisors likewise had higher job demands and struggled more with detachment than non-supervisors. In addition, higher job demands and lower detachment were associated with lower-quality sleep.

“If part-time employees and employees without supervisor status do not detach successfully, this is not reflected in their sleep quality, in contrast to full-time employees and supervisors,” explained Matick.

Matick and her colleagues examined whether job demands impair sleep quality directly or through their effect on detachment, in turn impairing sleep quality. Their analysis supported the latter relationship, in which greater job demands make it harder for workers to detach, leading to worse sleep.

Importantly, workers who perceived strong social support from colleagues and supervisors found it easier to detach from work. This greater detachment, in turn, led to better sleep. Though social support influenced detachment, it did not diminish the direct relationship between job demands and sleep quality — in other words, social support only had a moderating effect through its impact on detachment, not through its impact on job demands. This contrasted with previous research, adding a new wrinkle to this field. 

The research could have other implications for the way employers approach sleep quality in their workforce. Based on her findings, Matick suggests that organizations should work to improve perceived social support.

“Persistent high job demands should be avoided or limited in time,” Matick added, noting that organizations could work to optimize workload and time pressure by hiring enough staff or distributing responsibilities more evenly. She also highlighted a new meta-analysis on detachment, which suggested that it might be better to teach employees themselves how to detach from work than to implement top-down changes.

“From the employee’s point of view, coping strategies — for example, time management or setting priorities — could be a route to facilitate better handling of high job demands and thus, to detach,” Matick added.

In the future, Matick hopes to build on this research by investigating how sleep quality is influenced by factors such as leadership style and personal characteristics. She suggested that future studies could look at which types of social support help coworkers and supervisors detach from their jobs.

She also pointed to new research integrating self-reporting with actigraphy, a sleep monitoring strategy based on sensors that are usually worn on the wrist — such as a 2020 study that examined whether workers slept better when their supervisors took steps to improve employee sleep.

The study, “How to sleep well in times of high job demands: The supportive role of detachment and perceived social support,” published Feb. 19 in Work & Stress, was authored by Eva Matick, Gunnar Lemmer and Kathleen Otto, Philipps-University of Marburg; and Maria U. Kottwitz, University of Bern.

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