A few years ago when I worked at UEA as the SU’s CEO, one of the student officers was particularly interested in sleep.

It started as a pisstake – this was someone who somehow was unable to get into the office on time and frequently missed the start of meetings, and the inevitable office banter ensued.

But it turned out that not only was he having trouble switching off at night, so were lots of students.

We cast around for research and inevitably concluded that sleep correlates quite closely with both positive mental health and academic performance.

We also concluded (given said officer’s general political outlook) that because it’s hard to make much money from sleep, late capitalism wasn’t really highlighting interventions that might improve it when compared to any number of other expensive “life hacks”.

Said officer took a motion to the union council to attempt to highlight the issue. A big “sleepover” in the union’s nightclub ensued, we launched extensive information for students on the benefits, and then (more as a stunt than anything else) we found a bit of space in Union House and labelled it the “Nap Nook”, chucking in some soft lighting and a white noise machine to a space that students could book for 20 minutes a time.

Naturally, I got a concerned call from the Director of Estates, and others were concerned that the “nook” might become the “eighth L” on campus (use your imagination).

But not only did it get even more global press coverage than the sombrero ban that had caught the eye of culture warriors that year, it was also a huge success – so much so that at one stage we realised we’d not thought about deep cleaning the bean bags, and a bedbugs scare swept the campus.

I toss and turn without cease

Sleep matters. In one US study, students were shown to have irregular sleeping patterns – with 7 in 10 sleeping less than the recommended 8 hours per week and only 1 in 10 sleeping well consistently.

Compared to others in society, a larger proportion of university students in another study experienced daytime sleepiness and only 41 per cent felt well-rested during the week. Pulling “all-nighters” has also been found to be common among students.

In another study students argued that stress about academic work and life keeps them up at night. In addition, juggling part-time work can also worsen sleep quality. A study from Virginia Commonwealth University highlighted how the lack of “recovery experiences,” such as relaxation and leisure activities, further harms sleep quality.

A “sleep debt” of 2 hours per night or going to bed after 2 a.m. is linked to increased depressive symptoms, and the negative mental health impacts can manifest even after a single night of poor sleep. Studies also show that that in turn impacts students’ ability to learn and retain information.

Chronic sleep deprivation is then associated with long-term emotional difficulties like loss of pleasure, feelings of punishment, and self-dislike. And for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, lack of sleep can dangerously lower the threshold for suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

But now I keep myself pep

To update our intel on students and sleep, via our pulse polling partnership with GTI/Cibyl (which our subscriber SUs can take part in for free) we’ve been interrogating students and their use of time from a couple of angles – sleep, and work.

In December just under 1300 students from over 15 universities told us about how much time they spend on different activities – and while we can’t make claims for robust national representativeness (despite weighting for gender and age) what is clear is that there’s a relationship between sleep and all sorts of other things.

Overall in our sample, students told us they were getting just 5.4 hours of sleep a night on average – but as ever it’s the cross tabs that are most interesting.

If we look at mental health, for example, there’s quite a strong relationship between the life satisfaction measure and sleep:

Hours sleep a nightAverage satisfied life (6.3)
5 - 5.95.8
6 - 6.96.2
7 - 7.96.5
8 - 8.96.9

There’s also a pretty strong relationship between the anxiety measure and sleep:

Hours sleep a nightAverage anxious (5.0)
5 - 5.95.9
6 - 6.95.9
7 - 7.94.7
8 - 8.94.7

And despite plenty of students skipping sleep to get their commitments cleared, of all the aspects of students’ time that we asked them to record, it was sleep that was most positively closely correlated to the number of hours spent studying.

I write by candlelight, I find insight

As ever correlation is not causation. But the analysed themes in the free text comments suggest that students know their sleep is an issue – and want to do something about it:

I need more sleep!

Could probably do with more sleep, just trying to get 8 hours a week would be nice.

Many responses linked lack of sleep to academic deadlines and workload:

Currently, the workload is too big.

Require work to be done after placement, yet I leave at 6:45 am and get back around 6:30 pm.

And balancing jobs with studies was another cited cause:

Being in my overdraft monthly, long hours at work cuts into my sleep time.

The link between sleep and academic performance also comes through clearly, with students expressing feelings of being overwhelmed and drained due to lack of sleep:

I need to study more but…I can’t bring myself to get out of bed most of the time.

I would like to have 60 hours of sleep just to round it, maybe more personal care.

Before the usual army of “we’re not their parents” contributors dive into the comments section, the good news is that it’s not the case that students think this is all their university or the government’s fault.

But there is a clear sense that those whose lives are busier have less time and space to learn this kind of “adulting” on their own – and some things that can be done to make it easier to do so.

For example, a strong theme in the qual is students acknowledging the importance of a consistent sleep routine – including setting a regular bedtime, avoiding stimulants before sleep, and creating a pre-sleep routine to wind down effectively:

I need to work on a good sleep schedule.

They’re also aware that exhaustion stems from poor time management and high stress, and talk about needing to prioritise tasks, break down study sessions into manageable chunks, and use relaxation techniques to combat stress before it impacts their sleep.

Extrinsically, another major theme is timetabling – irregular timetables look to be a key contributor to disrupted sleep patterns.

What would help? A more consistent timetable.

Students are also looking for support beyond academic advice – perhaps from peers or from the SU:

I would take part in workshops on sleep improvement techniques, and healthy lifestyle habits.

Information on good sleep hygiene and the importance of rest.

Sadly, financial worries come up a lot – but ensuring that workloads are reasonable and well-distributed also look like they can prevent excessive stress and exhaustion.

And while such initiatives are often mocked, there being sufficient spaces on campus to both relax and yes, even nap, look like they would pay dividends for students’ non-teaching time.

Keep the beast in my nature

As well as asking about sleep, we wanted to interrogate other burdens. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that more students funding their studies through paid employment, and undertaking unpaid caring tasks for others, might be impacting their time for personal care and studying.

There was not an especially strong link between these time burdens and studying:

Average study timeBurden time

But what was fascinating – and often forgotten – was the way in which hours spent in part-time work also involve travelling:

Average PT workAverage travel pw

Add up work and travel, and in our sample, students with a job of 15 hours or less spend about 13 hours travelling and working, while those working more than 16 hours a week are spending almost 32 hours a week travelling and working – time that would otherwise be spent on personal care, social activity, study or sleep.

In other words, the amount of time spent on these burdens might not be impacting study time – but it is impacting both its efficacy, and wider activities that contribute to better mental health and/or social and skill development.

As such it was unsurprising to find that both travel and work dominated the qualitative comments on better use of time.

But there’s no release, no peace

Across the responses, students frequently noted the unreliability and infrequency of public transport as a significant barrier to their own success:

The buses are never on time so I’m always waiting a long time for them.

Better public transport routes and a general leniency and understanding, Empathy, at the end of the day. Treat me like a human being.

The financial burden of travel was also a recurring theme:

It’s so expensive. Free buses or heavily discounted buses for uni students.

My lecturer told me to work less hours. How?

The distance between living accommodation and the university (or their workplace) was also a thread. Students are seeking “more useful accommodation nearby” to reduce travel time and enhance their focus on studies and work.

In terms of employment, students are looking for employment opportunities that respect their academic commitments and offer the flexibility to accommodate an erratic university schedule.

Financial strain was a common theme – but this evidence suggests that students want control rather than handouts:

What would help? A higher minimum wage.

I need to work more than 20 hours a week.

And at the risk of attracting the ire of the “we’re not parents” mob again, there do appear to be structural solutions that can be pursued to make that part of the week when students aren’t being taught much less burdensome:

Finding a job in the local area has been so hard.

I don’t mind working, I enjoy it, but there needs to be more job opportunities at the uni as my work is an hour away.

A scheme within my uni to aid in finding local part-time jobs that are flexible to study hours.

Outside of the benefactor bursaries raining down on students in Oxford and Cambridge, we are, I suspect, long past the time when we might have expected a full-time student to be a student full-time.

That is not to suggest that lobbying should ease off on the cost of living crisis as it manifests for students – far from it. And it is not to suggest that endless efficiency “hacks” are the answer either.

But it is to suggest that outside of unspoken (and often unconscious) “dumbing down” of assessment standards, there are ways for government, universities and their SUs to make a much busier student life than we might have expected in the past both possible and preferable – both in terms of helping students to manage their time and rest, rethinking timetabling and assessment load, and intervening strategically and locally to improve the quality and availability of both transport and part-time work.

And next time a candidate for student leader proposes “napping pods” on campus, universities should almost certainly take such a proposal much more seriously than many have been taken in the past.

2 responses to “Students can’t get no sleep

  1. What an interesting article. I really like the idea of a ‘nap nook’. Soft seating, bean bags, low lighting. A place where students can literally have a 30 minute nap and recharge their batteries seems like a good way forward.

  2. I have been advocating a later start time for a few years to aid better sleep, access to more affordable travel and facilitating the school run…and still we start at 9am!

Leave a Reply