As we mark the unfortunate milestone of an entire year dealing with a global pandemic, I have some good news. And some news that pertains to something we all do, sleep.

A brand new study suggests that if you’ve been feeling down or depressed, there’s a simple change you can make in your daily habits that could lead to marked improvement in your moods.

That in turn can help you function better at work, lead a team more effectively, and ultimately achieve your goals in life and in business.

Sleep could be your secret key to success at work

Here’s the study, the simple change, and why you just might feel better tomorrow if you put it into practice today.

Ask the (young) doctors.

Writing in npj Digital Medicine, researchers from Michigan Medicine, which is the academic medical center at the University of Michigan, studied the sleep and moods reported by 2,100 people–specifically early-career physicians who were working as hospital interns.

As anyone who has either practiced medicine or watched medical dramas on TV will know, the life of a medical intern can be nasty, brutish, and long: irregular hours, calls at any time of night, lack of sleep.

It all adds up and the interns reported, unsurprisingly, that it could be difficult to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

So researchers asked them to wear devices on their wrists that tracked their sleep and other activity, asked them to report their moods each day, and asked them to take tests for signs of depression–once each quarter.

After tracking the data for a full year, researchers found a simple correlation:

  • Those who reported better moods, and who had fewer depression symptoms each quarter, were also the ones whose wearable data-tracking devices revealed that they had the least variable sleep schedules.
  • Conversely, those who had variable schedules were more likely to report worse moods and more depression symptoms, regardless of the total number of hours they actually slept.

In other words, sleeping at odd or irregular times had the same negative effect on mood and depression symptoms that having the fewest hours of sleep did. It simply wasn’t possible, in terms of mood enhancement, to “make up” for lack of sleep by sleeping more at odd hours.

“These findings highlight sleep consistency as an under appreciated factor to target in depression and wellness,” said Srijan Sen, MD, PhD, who runs the Intern Health Study at Michigan, according to a platform run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which reported the study. “The work also underscores the potential of wearable devices in understanding important constructs relevant to health that we previously could not study at scale.”

First casualty.

Let’s talk about how this applies to you, right now. Because several other studies have shown that sleep has become the first casualty of the pandemic.

Canadian study found that half of 5,525 people who were studied had their sleep habits upended as a result of Covid-19, stress, anxiety, lockdowns, and the general upheaval. And an earlier study in the U.S. found the number was closer to 67 percent whose sleep was negatively affected.

I doubt this will be a surprise to anyone. Most of our routines were completely upended, and it’s been hard to set up new routines. Also we’ve never really known how long this will last. Is this the new normal, or just normal for now?

For example, last summer I wrote about how we’d heard for decades, from just about everyone who professed to be an expert on working from home, that one of the keys was to get up in the morning, take a shower, and get dressed as if you were going to commute to work.

Then what happened? A study found that fully 90 percent of workers threw that idea clear out the window, opting for the “just roll out of bed” option–with the possible addition of a “Zoom shirt” to throw on quickly for video calls. (These photos that I wrote about after Gretchen Goldman shared them made the reality really clear.) 

Be kind to yourself (squared).

If you’re leading a team or running a business, you’re affected on at least two angles:

  • First, it’s likely that your sleep patterns have been disrupted, leading your moods to be affected.
  • Second, it’s also likely that your team members’ sleep patterns have been disrupted, leading to their moods being affected, too. 

It’s literally a problem, squared. What can you do to solve it? I admit, I’m the equivalent of the shoemaker whose kids are barefoot when it comes to this, as my sleep patterns have been all over the map.

But at least we know the steps to take. And at the least, how not to become part of the problem for people who work for you:

  • Set regular hours for yourself and your employees.
  • Stick to them as much as possible.
  • Try to limit off-hour emails and other communication. 
  • And for yourself, try writing down or recording on your phone when you go to bed and wake up. 

Finally, don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Even if we hope there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the pandemic, this has not been the kind of year when anyone should beat themselves up for adopting a few bad habits.

Here’s to better sleep, more regular sleep, and better moods in 2021.