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How Are Sleep and Mental Health Related?

Written by Goodpath Employer Health Index (GEHI)

Mental health and sleep are interconnected. Dr. Ioannis Koutsourelakis, Goodpath’s lead sleep specialist, explains: “Sleep disorders can be both a symptom and a cause of mental health disorders.” When either sleep or mental health worsen, the other can follow.  It is critical for employers and stakeholders to understand this relationship to then find appropriate solutions. 

An analysis by Willis Towers Watson predicts that mental health will make up the largest portion of medical spending increases in the next 5 years. Given the increasing prevalence of mental health problems in the workforce, employers focusing on employee health and well-being should consider the relationship between sleep and mental health.  

The Sleep, Stress, & Anxiety Cycle

Stress and sleep are intimately connected, forming a pattern called the stress-sleep cycle. Any level of psychological stress makes sleep worse and, as stress increases, so do sleep difficulties. In turn, sleep difficulties then increase stress and reduce one’s ability to manage stressors. Sleeping fewer than 5 hours per night is associated with a 200% increased risk of higher stress, implying that less sleep could impair one’s ability to manage stress.

There is also a link between insomnia and anxiety. A meta-analysis found that, when someone is diagnosed with insomnia, they are three times more likely to suffer from anxiety. The Goodpath Employer Health Index (GEHI) sleep assessment data found a relationship between anxiety and sleep disorders. When a sleep assessment respondent reported anxiety, they were 40% more likely to also have moderate to severe insomnia symptoms than non-anxious respondents.

Putting this in context for employers, stress at work can translate to poor sleep. Employees already experience high levels of stress. In a 2020 survey of large employers, 43% of employees reported they were experiencing symptoms of burnout, including physical or emotional exhaustion, or intense anxiety about work. With the stress-sleep cycle, that work-related stress may then get worse, leading to employee burnout.

Sleep & Depression

Like stress and anxiety, depression also affects sleep. Sleep and depression are interrelated, with poor sleep contributing to depression and depression contributing to poor sleep. 

Trouble sleeping is a predictor of depression. Clinically-diagnosed insomnia is highly correlated with depression, and insomnia triples the risk of developing depression. Around 40% of patients with depression had sleep challenges prior to developing the condition

Suffering from depression also leads, in turn, to poor sleep, and depression is a strong predictor of later insomnia. Suffering from a disorder like depression increases the risk of developing chronic insomnia. In fact, 90% of depressed patients report sleep disorders

Many employers are increasingly focused on managing stress and improving the mental health of their employees. It is obvious that sleep plays a key role in that activity.  As sleep and mental health are intertwined, treatment should address both. Any effort to address stress or mental health should also offer proper support for sleep to achieve optimal results for employees. Similarly, treating sleep disorders can alleviate mental health symptoms, so sleep support programs should be screened to ensure they are comprehensive and also address mental health.

This article is part of our larger series on sleep and its role in employee health. Continue here for statistics and details on how sleep changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information on sleep and its relationship to employee health and workplace productivity, access the full Sleep & Its Role In Employee Health report here. You can also access the Improving Employee Sleep Action Plan here.