Losing sleep during lockdown

Women, young children, key workers and BAME groups are stuggling with sleep during the coronavirus lockdown. 

A new study has revealed that sleep loss is affecting more people during the Covid-19 pandemic, reflecting rising stress levels due to anxieties about health, financial consequences, changes in social life and daily routine, all of which may affect sleep. Sleep deprivation can have knock-on effects for physical and mental health.

Conducted by Professor Jane Falkingham OBE and a team from the ESRC Centre for Population Change and Centre for Research on Ageing at the University of Southampton, the analysis used survey data from the Understanding Society COVID-19 Study collected during April 2020. It was then compared with survey data collected in 2018/19. The sample included 15,360 respondents aged 16 and above. From this sample, 12,206 people reported no problems with sleep loss before the epidemic. During the first four weeks of the UK coronavirus lockdown, one in four people reported increased sleep loss due to worry, and one fifth of respondents reported a new occurrence of sleep loss.

The analysis provides evidence that women have been more vulnerable to sleep deprivation during lockdown, and is in-line with much of the emerging research that suggests experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK have been very different for men and women. For example, women’s position in the labour market may increase their exposure to Covid-19, as women represent a significant majority of frontline workers in social care, education and health care. Many parents will have been affected by school closures, and the need to balance paid work with more childcare and home-learning. These extra responsibilities haven’t fallen equally; the gendered allocation of childcare means that, in many households, mums continue to be the primary carers for children. For women in mid-life, they may find themselves juggling work with caring responsibilities for aged parents and grandchildren.

People from BAME heritage were more likely to experience sleep loss than those identifying as British White. Again, this joins up with recent research that BAME groups have disproportionally higher rates of coronavirus infection, high anxiety associated with coronavirus-specific circumstances, are more likely to be key workers, to have dependent children, and to feel lonely. All of these are likely to increase the risk of sleep loss. When the research team controlled for the effects of these factors, they found that being a member of a BAME group means you are less likely to suffer from sleep loss, highlighting the complex relationship between ethnicity and sleep health.

Professor Falkingham comments: “We are seeing that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on the health of individuals from different ethnic groups and those employed in certain jobs. The indirect impacts of Covid-19, including the closure of schools and businesses, and the move to home-working, seem to be worse for younger people and women. These factors may, in turn, impact upon sleep health.”

She continues: “The Covid-19 pandemic and the policy responses to it have widened the differences in sleep deprivation across gender and ethnicity, putting women and ethnic minorities at an even greater disadvantage. Disrupted and poor sleep is associated with wider mental and physical health challenges. Policy makers and health professionals need to take action now. It will be vital that they support and promote better sleep health amongst vulnerable groups during the pandemic if they are to avoid future secondary health complications.” 

You can read the research here: Sleepless in lockdown: unpacking differences in sleep loss during the coronavirus pandemic in the UK