The secret to sleeping better and longer just might be giving yourself a break at the office


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If you’re burned out at work—which, let’s be honest, most of us have been at one point or another—you’ve likely fantasized about crawling into bed and sleeping for, like, an avocado’s entire lifespan. But if you’ve ever actually tried to snooze deeply when you’re drowning in deadlines, you know all too well that restorative rest can be really hard to come by during a period of stress. (Seriously, cortisol and adrenaline levels aren’t working in your favor here.)

This connection between burnout and insomnia, which probably seems fairly obvious to anyone with a demanding job, has real science behind it: A study of 1,300 financial workers showed that job strain only represents a risk factor for burnout if coupled with insomnia. And, for a lot of Well+Good readers, work and stress—and work stress—is, indeed, interfering with shut-eye: In a recent survey, we asked what keeps people up at night; 55 percent cited work or school, 60 percent said anxiety, and 65 percent said general stress.

The first step in fixing this stress insomnia is accepting that it’s is a problem. “If the stress you’re experiencing is impacting other areas of your life, like relationships, friendships, physical health, or sleeping habits, then it may be time to pause and reassess whether or not that stress is turning toxic,” says Paige Rechtman, LMHC, a counselor at the Alma mental health co-practice community in New York City.

“If the stress you’re experiencing is impacting other areas of your life, like…sleeping habits, then it may be time to pause and reassess whether or not that stress is turning toxic.”—Paige Rechtman, LMHC

In a lot of cases, toxic work-related stress looks like perfectionism in overdrive—you’re constantly thinking about how you can perform better and beating yourself up for all the tiny ways you’ve messed up. And there are several reasons women (98 percent of respondents to Well+Good’s survey identify as women) in particular fall victim to this line of thinking. For one thing, Rechtman says, being constantly subjected to the social media highlight reel can lead us to place unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Furthermore, women are also often socialized to take care of everyone else before themselves, which Rechtman says can lead to “having too much on your plate, feelings of inadequacy, and real burnout.”

But she believes the real root of the problem is we’re trying to prove our self-worth through our achievements—something many of us have been trained to do since we were children, at least if we were raised in an environment that placed a high value on GPAs, extracurricular leadership positions, and sports trophies. “Many people have this mistaken belief about themselves that if they aren’t achieving enough, doing enough, or are not doing everything ‘perfectly,’ then they are not of inherent worth, value, or ‘enough’ themselves,” Rechtman says. “An inherent sense of self-worth must be cultivated alongside this human desire to achieve and succeed; it cannot depend on achievements.”

To get the ball rolling, simply be easier on yourself—a process that Rechtman says starts by examining the way you talk to yourself every day (including those times you’re wide awake at 3 a.m.). Here are a few specific ways to shift your perspective to a kinder place, both when you’re on and off the clock.

Lower your workplace stress (and sleep better!) by being kinder to yourself—using these 3 tips.

stress insomnia tips
Photo: Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill

1. Stop using the word “should”

This simple tactic can help you take the pressure off yourself while also creating clarity around what’s really going to make you happy. “Stop telling yourself that you ‘should’ be perfect, you ‘should’ be able to perform better, you ‘should’ be more successful, you ‘should’ be happier,” says Rechtman. When you catch yourself doing this, swap “should” with “would like to” or “am trying my best to.” The practice can be telling because it may even illuminate that you don’t actually want what you think you “should.”

2. Pay attention to absolutist thinking

Does your late-night inner dialogue include phrases like “I always make stupid mistakes,” “I must make partner this year,” “I never get credit for my ideas,” or “All of my friends are more successful than me”? If so, it’s likely fueling your stress and sleeplessness in a big way. “If you find yourself thinking in these terms, think of another way to look at the situation that isn’t all or nothing,” suggests Rechtman. “Something like, ‘I don’t make mistakes all of the time; there are times when I did things well, and this is what they are.’” Take it as proof that gassing isn’t just something to be reserved for your girlfriends.

3. Practice saying “no”

A common reason behind burnout is not saying no enough. But it’s crucial to become skilled at turning things down in order to maintain sanity. Especially for many women, who naturally want to please others while being able to handle everything thrown at them, boundaries can be hard to set and abide by, Rechtman says. “But saying no doesn’t mean you can’t handle it. It means you value yourself and your health enough to take care of your own needs.”

Whenever you’re faced with a decision, whether it’s a new project or an invite to an after-work event, ask yourself if you’d be saying yes because you really want to do it, or because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t. If it’s the latter, she says, and you are in a position to turn down the opportunity without compromising your job, a “no” is in order. And if this course of action feels nauseatingly awkward, you could offer an alternate plan for getting the job done, including suggesting a different timeline or pointing to someone on your team with fewer tasks on their plate.

With time and a commitment to self-awareness and accountability, you’ll become a pro at prioritizing yourself, your stress levels, and—as a by-product—your zzz’s. “Humans are resilient, and as we grow, we become wiser, more insightful, and develop more effective tools to cope with life’s challenges,” Rechtman says. I know that reassurance alone is going to help me sleep a little easier tonight.

Want more Sleep Week intel? Here’s the nighttime routine one sleep expert swears by. And why one writer is afraid of the dark—but isn’t afraid to normalize it.

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