When the pandemic hit last March, Lisa Wong cut out a 20-minute commute from her Mount Pleasant condo to her downtown Vancouver office, where she works as a technical writer. Also eliminated was the need to do her makeup and choose a professional outfit to wear in the mornings.
“Factoring all of that in, I can get up an hour later,” Wong says. “I can sleep in a little bit more.”
Pre-pandemic, Wong used to fall asleep around midnight. But, since COVID-19, she finds herself staying up watching T.V. or reading on her e-reader until around 1 a.m.
“I don’t feel the level of tiredness that would make me want to drift off to sleep,” Wong explains. “I’m still pretty alert. So my bedtime has slowly crept up. I’m waking up an hour later, but I’m not getting more sleep because I stay up later.”
Wong’s sleep schedule has shifted during the pandemic. And like many Canadians, her nighttime routine will get another shakeup once she returns to the office, likely in September.
“Now that reopening is starting, people will be commuting to work and they may have to get back to their regular schedules,” says Dr. Mandeep Singh, an anesthesiologist and sleep medicine specialist at the University Health Network and the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. “Some people may have difficulty adjusting.”
Wong is one of countless office workers for whom working from home has allowed her body to adjust to its natural circadian rhythms, also known as chronotypes. Those with morning chronotypes naturally wake up early and feel energized, while evening types prefer to stay up and do their work later.
“When you don’t have the pressure to wake up in the morning, people with the evening chronotype tend to delay their bedtime,” Dr. Singh explains. “They’ll probably be working on their projects late into the night on their laptops.”
Evening types may struggle more with reverting to a nine-to-five schedule and a morning commute, he warns. But no one, regardless of chronotype, should wait until the evening before the first day back in the office to reset their alarm.
“It takes between three to four weeks for people to reorganize their circadian rhythms,” Dr. Singh says. He advises a gradual approach – setting your alarm progressively earlier in 15- or 30-minute increments for a few days at a time until you’re back to your regular waking hour.
Many Canadians, like Wong, are anticipating a hybrid return to work – a few days in the office combined with a few days working at home. It’s tempting to hit snooze on your alarm on days without a commute, but Dr. Singh discourages this.
“It’s very important to have a consistent sleep schedule,” he says. Going to bed and waking up at the same time helps to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm. That makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep every night.
And that goes for weekends, too: “Even if people are only going into the office for two or three days, they should wake up at the same time all seven days of the week,” Dr. Singh says.
Parents shouldn’t forget their kids during this adjustment period. Amid asynchronous learning and summers off from school, some students might have grown accustomed to sleeping in. Dr. Singh says that adolescents tend to be evening types, so a transitional phase leading up to a return to in-person schooling could be beneficial for students as well.
“It makes sense for the whole family to start thinking about aligning their circadian rhythms,” Dr. Singh says.
Pandemic or not, there are a few things you can be doing to improve your sleep routine. When you wake up in the morning, open the blinds to let in natural light and maintain your exposure throughout the day.
“Natural light exposure is always good for sleep,” Dr. Singh explains. Physical activity can help – especially if it’s outdoors – by promoting muscle relaxation. Just make sure you’re not getting too active close to bedtime, or you’ll raise your body’s core temperature and endorphin levels enough to make it hard to feel tired.
Dr. Singh also encourages the use of filters for blue light – exposure to which can suppress natural melatonin secretion – on devices such as smartphones and laptops in the evening.
“Newer devices have a ‘night shift’ mode that cuts down on white and blue light from your devices,” Dr. Singh explains. You can also download apps for your phone or laptop to change the colour of your screen and reduce blue and white light emissions close to bedtime.
If you’ve been experiencing chronic insomnia – difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for more than three nights a week for three months or more – you may want to visit your family doctor or a sleep specialist to see if there’s an underlying cause. Loud snoring or irregular breathing during sleep could be a sign of sleep apnea, which should also be treated by a medical professional.
“If someone has these intrinsic sleep problems, they will be feeling much worse during changes in sleep schedules,” Dr. Singh says. Now is a great time to address these sleep issues, before the upcoming transition back to a nine-to-five.
Realigning your circadian rhythm can be a stressful experience. But worrying can exacerbate the problem.
“If people get anxious about their sleep schedule, then it’s going to make it much worse,” says Dr. Singh. Instead, accept that the transition will take time and may result in a few days of less sleep as your body adjusts.
For Wong, going back to the office will require embracing her morning commute – and setting her alarm clock earlier. But she’s still looking forward to a return to routine.
“I’ll have the luxury of going to a separate workspace and being in full work mode mentally,” she says. “I’ll get to have that separation between work and home back again. I think that’s a worthwhile trade-off.”