In bed, but still at work

Want to do a little Web surfing or answer some e-mails before drifting off to sleep? Good luck with that.

Karl Stier (at left) of West Roxbury brings his work home — and is often still working on his computer or phone when he goes to bed. Stier decided to unplug his bedroom a month ago. Karl Stier (at left) of West Roxbury brings his work home — and is often still working on his computer or phone when he goes to bed. Stier decided to unplug his bedroom a month ago. (BYRON SMITH FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / June 21, 2011

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In 1995, when they bought their home in Medway, Julie and Tim Dennehy decided not to get a television for their bedroom because they didn’t want to be so “plugged in.’’

Today, this is the Dennehys’ routine. At night, after the kids are asleep, Julie heads to the bedroom. She turns off the light, but turns on her iPhone to write her parenting blog, check e-mails, work on some client stuff. When Tim, a Wellesley police officer, returns home and heads upstairs, about 1 a.m., they check in with each other, and then each is off — on their hand-helds. He reads her blog, e-mails, chats with friends on Facebook.

Sometimes, they don’t drift off to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m. “I’ve actually fallen asleep with the iPhone dropped in my bed somewhere,’’ says Julie, 42, who owns a public relations firm. “Technology is so enabling, but it’s also so addicting.’’

So much for not being plugged in. And about that TV they decided not to put in the bedroom years ago? Sometimes, Julie concedes, she’ll watch a movie in bed, on her tiny cellphone screen.

The Dennehys are hardly alone in their nocturnal habits. Many who have already brushed their teeth, donned their pajamas, and gotten into bed hear and heed the siren call of laptops and cellphones that are as close as the bedside table. For many of them, the line between work and home no longer exists in the age of telecommuting. Others simply cannot stay away from social media.

But, experts say, it’s not a good idea to turn your bedroom into your office. Sleep — or lack thereof — is the main reason.

Dr. Michael Biber, director of the Neurocare Center for Sleep in Newton, says that being exposed to light — overhead, or from a computer — before going to bed can thwart the release of melatonin, which throws off the circadian rhythm that dictates sleep. And getting engaged in online activities can add stress or alertness that is not conducive to falling asleep.

“If someone is ruminating, planning, organizing, it’s incompatible with sleep,’’ says Biber. “People should avoid those kinds of activities that are energizing.’’

Karl Stier blames only himself for his dilemma. Five years ago, when he started his communications company that does websites, videos, marketing, and branding, he tried to set himself apart from the competition by telling clients they could reach him anytime, day or night. And they do. He keeps an iPad, iPhone, and laptop at the ready.

“They will text me at 10 at night, I’ll get e-mails, I’ll get phone calls. It’s not only annoying, it’s taken a toll on me,’’ says Stier, 50, who works out of his West Roxbury home — day and night. Recently, a client e-mailed him at 3:30 a.m. “I woke up, rubbed my eyes, and what did I do? I fired off a response, and then I couldn’t get back to sleep. It’s incredibly unhealthy.’’

His business partner and fiancee, Carol Strickland, is the opposite. She is unplugged by 7 p.m. and counsels Stier to do the same. “But he has such a hard time doing it, he goes through withdrawal,’’ Strickland said.

Does all of this keep her awake? “No, luckily, I can sleep through anything,’’ says Strickland. “But I keep plugging away at him to unplug.’’

Rebekah Kaufman works two shifts. There’s her day job, as a consultant to nonprofits. And then at night, after dinner and dog walks, she heads up to the bedroom of her Cambridge home. But not for sleep — not yet. At about 10 p.m., she opens her laptop for the online business she founded, collecting and selling antique German Steiff teddy bears.

A passionate collector and broker, Kaufman busies herself, often till the wee hours, with her clients around the world and the blog she writes about rare specialty bears. Doesn’t she keep her husband awake? No, in their queen-sized bed, he’s right next to her on his own laptop. A brain researcher at McLean Hospital, Marc Kaufman taps away on his own blog about drug dependence and its effect on the brain, or he may be writing grant proposals.

Around midnight, the laptops are shut down — it’s the bright light — and the hand-helds come out: an iPhone for her, an iTouch for him. They may work for another hour before drifting off. Luckily, neither has trouble falling asleep, she says. “We’re not stressed; we’re blogging on things we’re passionate about,’’ she says. Besides: “We’re exhausted by the time we go to sleep.’’

Lynn Taylor, a feng shui practitioner and consultant in Watertown, says people should turn off their electronic and wireless devices in the bedroom. “Everything in your visual field is a demand on your attention,’’ says Taylor, who also writes an online feng shui advice column. “You need to stop thinking about the outside world and start going within to get rested.’’

Electronic fields can interfere with sleep, when people are the most vulnerable, she says. Her advice? “Unplug, unplug, unplug.’’

Maureen Campaiola of Methuen helps care for her elderly mother, and often gets up with her in the middle of the night. While she’s awake she thinks she might as well check her BlackBerry to see who else is.

“I turn it on just because I want to know if there’s any other idiot up like me. Did anyone comment on anything I posted?’’ says Campaiola, 49, who owns a consulting business for women who need help with money issues.

With 4,300 friends on Facebook and 9,000 Twitter followers, Campaiola admits she’s “over-connected’’ and sleep-deprived. Once she’s awake, she can’t get back to sleep and so spends more time writing blog posts and doing other work. “Not a good thing when you need to be alert for your clients,’’ she says.

Stier knows that his insomnia is due to the constant pull of his computers and cellphone. “I feel in a way I’m like an alcoholic who just discovered what my problem is,’’ he says.

So a month ago, he went on the wagon, unplugging his bedroom. He’s sleeping better. But he’s doing more: drinking herbal tea, turning the lights down, not arguing politics before bedtime or watching anything on television “that makes me mad,’’ he says. He’s started listening to music and reading before going to bed.

“I’m trying to reclaim these old hobbies I now have time for,’’ he says.

But wee-hour workaholics can take some comfort. Even if you’re working in bed at night, says Dr. Biber, it’s not always a bad thing. “Some work,’’ he says, “can be boring and actually promotes sleep.’’