A growing number of young people are suffering from insomnia prompted by coronavirus lockdowns and are experiencing significant workplace productivity losses, studies show.
About one in five participants in a new study of more than 550 22-year-olds has a sleep disorder, most commonly insomnia, due to the lingering effects of the pandemic, a report in the Medical Journal of Australia says.
And the researchers, from Flinders University, found workplace productivity losses are up to 40 per cent greater among those with a clinical sleep disorder than among people with no sleep disorders.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic is the gift that keeps on giving, and it has set up this perpetual cycle of ongoing sleep difficulties,” said specialist sleep physician Dr David Cunnington, who sits on the board of the Australasian Sleep Association.
Many people developed insomnia during the pandemic and were unable to shake it, he said.
Cunnington’s warning comes after the study by researchers at Flinders University found significant workplace productivity losses among young Australian adults that were primarily caused by insomnia.
“It is not surprising at all because if you think about whose lives have been most turned upside down, both by the pandemic and now current economic circumstances, with the cost of living rising and rent prices, it is the young people who are really suffering,” said Cunnington, who worked in a Melbourne clinic for years before relocating to Queensland recently.
“Sleep can be a barometer of mental health, and it can be a mirror of our overall health.
“If someone’s sleep is off, it’s like the canary in the coal mine that tells us something’s not right.”
Epworth HealthCare respiratory and sleep disorders physician Marcus McMahon said young people were often less inclined to seek medical help even if they were more at risk of insomnia.
Melbourne woman Cassie, who did not want her last name published for privacy reasons, developed insomnia during the pandemic. The 31-year-old said she often found herself awake past 4am and functioning on barely any sleep.
“It was the uncertainty of what was happening in my life at that time,” she said. “Because I run my own businesses, I just had to keep working, and it started to really impact my mental health.”
Cassie says she is still lucky to get three hours of sleep a night.
“It just started this continual cycle of anxiety that I haven’t been able to overcome,” she said. “At this point, I am just running on adrenaline.”
Tips for getting a good night’s sleep:
- Don’t go to bed until you are sleepy.
- Develop a regular pre-sleep routine that is calming and relaxing. Put down your devices and gaming consoles and spend two or three hours calming down.
- Have a hot shower before bed. Raising your body temperature, and then allowing it to cool down again, can help to initiate the sleep process.
- Use a mindfulness app such as Smiling Minds.
- Download a bedtime podcast such as Nothing Much Happens.
- Avoid scrolling on your phone and being on social media while in bed.
- Keep your phone out of your bedroom if you can.
Studies suggest up to 40 per cent of Australians do not get enough sleep. A report on chronic insomnia commissioned by the Sleep Health Foundation found almost 60 per cent of Australians regularly experienced symptoms of sleep difficulty, including trouble falling or staying asleep, during the pandemic.
Another global study, by Australian experts, reported two in five people were waking frequently at night, including 41 per cent who were waking during the night three or more times a week, a symptom of insomnia.
McMahon said insomnia tended to develop when a person was in a heightened state of arousal, which can be fuelled by excessive use of social media or gaming.
During the pandemic, many people’s sleep patterns changed, he said. His clinic, in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond, was flooded with people suffering from acute insomnia during lockdowns.
But others were getting more sleep than ever, while some patients developed a delayed sleep phase disorder after getting into the habit of going to bed later, a risk factor for insomnia.
“Young people have a tendency to stay up later,” he said, blaming social media, mobile devices, gaming and other distractions.
Flinders University associate professor in clinical sleep health Amy Reynolds, who led the university’s study, said the prevalence of sleep disorders in young adults was concerning.
“One of the biggest challenges is that often insomnia either isn’t diagnosed or it’s not receiving appropriate management,” she said.
In the short term, sleep deprivation was linked to sadness, irritability, unstable moods and difficulty remembering or retaining information, while a chronic lack of sleep was associated with a range of other burdens of disease including stroke, diabetes and heart disease.