Effects of Work Travel on Sleep Patterns

Shelby Borowski, M.S., doctoral student; Jill Naar, M.S., doctoral student; and Anisa Zvonkovic, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Human Development, Virginia Tech

In Brief

  • Work often influences sleep and sleep is associated with health outcomes.
  • Conservation-of-resources theory suggests that sleep can be an important resource that people bring to their work and family lives—a resource that may differ between men and women.
  • Advanced research methods, such as time diaries, allow for additional insight into the effects of work travel on individuals’ sleep.


Shelby Borowski, Anisa Zvonkovic, & Jill Naar

Work, Health, and Sleep

Sleep affects and is affected by health, personal relationships, and occupational factors (Åkerstedt, Kecklund, & Gillberg, 2007; Doi, 2005). When people experience high work and family demands, their sleep is compromised (Knudsen, Ducharme, & Roman, 2007). These demands may include feeling overloaded at work, experiencing conflict between work and personal roles, and performing repetitive tasks at work. Women have more sleep deficits than men, as a result of many health and work factors as well as gendered family responsibilities, especially if children are present in the home (Maume, Sebastian, & Bardo, 2010).


Sleep as a Resource

Work is a way to increase resources, but it also requires and sometimes depletes resources. Sleep can be viewed as one of those resources. The conservation-of-resources theory (COR) (Hobfoll, 1989) proposes that individuals seek to acquire and maintain resources. Stress arises when there is a lack, loss (or potential loss), or threat involving resources. If individuals have low-quality sleep, they may experience a cycle of resource loss over time. Investing in sleep may protect other resources and aid in the recovery and gaining of resources. Traveling for work is one example of a job demand that may compromise the resource of adequate sleep.

In today’s fast-paced society, workers may be expected to maintain a high work pace. This environment may lead to psychological strain, which affects sleep quality, and so depletes an individual’s resources (Nixon, Mazzola, Bauer, Krueger, & Spector, 2011). Cumulative exposure to high job demands has been found to affect sleep for people who work in a variety of jobs across the globe (De Lange et al., 2009). Qualitatively, full-time workers in the U.S. reported poorer-quality sleep when they felt overloaded by their work tasks. Objective work factors also influence sleep duration (Knudsen et al., 2007), such as longer work hours, time spent commuting, and repetitive work tasks (Chatzitheochari & Arber, 2009; Knudsen et al., 2007). These findings demonstrate the importance of examining both objective and subjective work factors to understand the relationship between sleep and work.


Work, Sleep, and Gender

When studies reported that people experienced work–family conflict, such that they felt that their work and family roles were competing, they experienced poorer sleep quality (e.g., Sekine, Chandola, Martikainen, Marmot, & Kagamimori, 2005). However, these experiences may be different for men and women (Arber, Bote, & Meadows, 2009). Gender is an important component to examine within sleep research. Women’s participation rates in the workforce are comparable to those of men; however, work and family roles remain gendered. Women tend to contribute significantly more to housework than men do (Hook, 2010). From a COR perspective, women may be losing valuable resources (i.e., sleep) to participate fully in paid work and their families. Women also tend to report poorer sleep quality than men (Maume et al., 2010). Specifically, women’s sleep was disrupted by responding to the needs of their family members. Some men experienced disrupted sleep due to coparenting, but most husbands had longer and more continuous sleep than their wives. Home and family responsibilities might be responsible for these differences; men who reported spending more than 30 minutes a day in child care or housework had a greater risk of shorter sleep duration than did men who spent less time (Chatzitheorchari & Arber, 2009). However, in the same study, the amount of time women spent on child care and housework did not directly influence their sleep duration. Therefore, examining gender in the context of work and sleep is crucial.


Daily Diaries of Families Experiencing Work Travel

Our work focuses on families involved in frequent, overnight work-related travel, a particular job demand that is becoming increasingly common. About one-third of workers travel overnight for work, yet this population is understudied in the work–family literature (Gustafson, 2006). Research—and personal experience—suggests that travelers report more difficulty sleeping when they are on a trip than when they are at home. Noise in the hotel room, an unfamiliar environment, and the disruption to circadian rhythms—especially if the travel results in time-zone changes—may contribute to travelers’ sleep problems (DeFrank, Konopaske, & Ivancevish, 2000; Geiger-Brown, Trinkoff, & Rogers, 2011; Rogers & Reilly, 2002). Therefore, scholarship on work-related travel suggests that travel may influence workers’ sleep duration and sleep quality, thereby demonstrating the importance of examining sleep among those who travel frequently for work.

Our study also focused on daily work experiences, as work experiences can fluctuate from day to day, and these experiences have been shown to affect stress, which relates to sleep quality. DeFrank and colleagues (2000) discussed post-trip stressors in their review of work stress, concluding that, when returning from a trip, workers indicated that work had “piled up” (e.g., expense accounts, unanswered email, work missed while out of the office). Workers compromised sleep during the trip and also when they returned home. These findings highlight the importance of examining stressors and resources at different time points in relation to sleep.

The methodological approach of examining daily experiences enables researchers to examine day-to-day variations in experiences (Robles, Reynolds, Repetti, & Chung, 2013). We utilized a daily diary methodology to assess daily fluctuations in work experiences and sleep quality, both on a trip and at home. We also considered traveler gender in the analyses. We examined 90 workers who were mostly male (64%), White (88.3%), and highly educated (86% held a 4-year degree or higher).

In our study, looking only at people whose jobs required frequent travel, we found that being on a trip made a difference for sleep duration and sleep quality (which included a general rating of quality and feeling refreshed). When on a work trip, respondents reported a lower amount of sleep and a lower sleep quality than when they were home. For quality of sleep, having a more intensive workday mattered, regardless of whether one was on a trip. For amount of sleep, the daily experience of work while on a work trip mattered: On days when people reported being highly productive, needing to use a high level of skill to perform their work that day, and having an intensive workday, people reported less sleep. The effect of daily work experiences on sleep duration was found only during the times that workers were on trips. These findings are consistent with COR theory and previous literature on work and sleep. An additional sleep finding that contrasts with previous research concerned how refreshed people felt after their sleep: On days when travelers were away from home, the more support they reported, the less refreshed they were after sleep. It may be that when people who are away from their work reported receiving support, they were also interacting more with coworkers and supervisors, which reduced their sleep. There were no significant findings related to gender, which suggests that men and women might experience work trips similarly.



Workplaces should be interested in helping workers get a good night’s sleep to guard against workplace accidents and to improve productivity (Rosekind et al., 2010; Uehli et al., 2014). Assisting workers to sleep better could include delivering psychoeducational programming such as Family Life Education, providing quiet meditation spaces, or modifying job demands. Health providers should also ask about sleep experiences and quality of sleep. Insufficient sleep is related to greater risk of chronic health problems (Buxton & Marcelli, 2010). To the extent that the performance of housework and child care interfere with sleep, especially among women, Family Life Educators should work with families to help them to protect their sleep time.  As we found, the quality of sleep and amount of sleep fluctuates when people are on work trips compared to when they are home. Other job situations, such as telecommuting, working flexible hours, and other variations of the standard 9-to-5 schedule might be associated with other sleep problems. Using daily diaries to study daily variation within a person’s work and sleep experience has methodological implications and should be encouraged for the study of other flexible job arrangements. It may be helpful to use psychoeducational approaches that include diaries as well.


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