Carole Spiers explains how creating the right environment for a good night’s sleep can help you perform better at work
I know what you’re thinking – this goes against everything you’ve believed. Surely to snag that promotion you’ve had your eye on or to win favour with your boss for great work, you should be replying to every email after hours and pulling all-nighters to cram in extra work.
Well let me tell you – you are wrong!
Lack of sleep has various consequences for us human beings. In fact, there is no animal that can exist for very long without sufficient sleep – and humans are the only mammals who are unwise enough to try. Sleep deprivation affects our mood, our health, the ability to be creative and to make good decisions. Sleep is a biological need that must not be overlooked in order to prioritise psychological needs such as autonomy or competency which we can get from work. It’s about getting the balance right!
Signs You’re Cutting It Too Short
Lack of sleep affects our behaviour and thought patterns. Research has shown that going 24 hours without sleep can lead a healthy person to display symptoms similar to schizophrenia, whilst Forbes mentioned a study by The University of California that found sleep deprivation triggered a 30% anxiety increase in healthy individuals.
And there are others…
You feel tired or drowsy at any time during the day.
You slur your speech. The front lobe of the brain, which is greatly impacted by sleep deprivation, is associated with speech as well as with constructive and creative thinking.
You’re hungrier than usual. Although you have had breakfast, by the time you reach the office you’re craving some biscuits. Sleep deprivation can make you hungrier than usual because it affects two hormones that regulate our appetite – leptin and ghrelin. When we don’t get enough sleep, the level of leptin (the satiety hormone) decreases whilst ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increases.
You’re clumsy. Sleep problems can cause issues with motor skills such as being unsteady on your feet and stumbling when carrying your things – or just being generally careless.
You are forgetful. Sleep plays a crucial role in memory consolidation and emotional processing. Sufficient rest is key for cementing what you’ve learned during the day.
You are irritable and argumentative. It is easy to blame the world and not take responsibility for your own behaviour but some of the best advice we can take comes from others who notice a change in our behaviour. Listen to what other people are saying about you and do not ignore them.
You find it difficult to concentrate. This may also affect your ability to make quick decisions. The National Sleep Foundation states that even moderately sleep deprived, you can reduce your response rate by 50% whilst a sleep deprived brain can replicate old decision paths without noting how they resulted – leading to the possibility of repeating bad decisions.
You are often sick. An insufficiency of sleep can affect your immune system and can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.
Your brain is not as effective when it is deprived of sleep – just like your body isn’t as effective when it is deprived of food. What is the point in slogging away after hours, failing to ever switch off, if you’re not even functioning at your optimum capacity?
Learn to work smarter, not longer, by prioritising your sleep.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep (it’s easier said than done!)
1. Create a sleep schedule
Go to bed and get up at the same time EVERY day. This creates a pattern which your body will adjust to and accept. It is very tempting to stay in bed in the morning on a weekend but that could just be getting you into a bad habit. If you feel regularly tired during the afternoon, then try to take a catnap for 20 minutes which you could do during your lunch hour. When you awake, you can feel hugely refreshed and ready for an afternoon’s work.
2. Avoid heavy meals and stimulants before bed
People who eat small meals at least four hours before bedtime are more likely to sleep right through the night. Larger meals can cause discomfort or can provide too much energy that it becomes difficult to switch off. You might also like to reconsider that after-dinner espresso as it has been said that for every cup of coffee after 8pm, you can lose one hour’s sleep!
3. Leave your phone outside your bedroom
Many clients say to me that they have their phones next to their bed which means they are disturbed by the charging lights, but they are also not consciously switching off, keeping themselves on constant call. Our digital gadgets are not only directly linked to a poor night’s sleep, but they’re also associated with our busy lives and can be a reminder of work. Better to have an old-fashioned book next to your bed instead!
4. No burpees before bed
Research shows that some regular exercise during the day can assist you to enjoy a restful night’s sleep but leaving this too late in the day can lead to you feeling energised instead of relaxed. If you enjoy doing your exercise in the evening, perhaps opt for a less intense activity such as a light walk or yoga. Yoga also has excellent relaxation benefits making it perfect for right before bed.
5. The settings
Temperature, noise and lighting can all impact the quality of your sleep. Make sure that your bedroom is quiet, comfortable and not too hot. Your air-conditioning should be no higher than about 18 degrees Celsius or preferably a little lower to be conducive to restful sleep. Obviously, noise should be kept to a minimum with no TV or other music intruding upon your rest and the room should be kept dark.
6. A routine to relax
Establishing a bedtime routine can encourage you to wind down and take your mind away from any concerns you’re having. Whether yours will include herbal remedies, a warm bath with a book, or a simple soothing act such as applying moisturizer around your body. Consistently performing this before bed will get your body and mind prepared for sleep.
A Note for Employers
Understandably, talk of insomnia will elicit scepticism with many employers. Younger staff will be suspected of indulging in too many late nights and even be reminded that Margaret Thatcher ran Britain for years on just four hours of sleep a night. And in professions with a public-safety remit, like airlines or road haulage, irresponsible employees know they’ll probably just be told to go home and rest until they’re feeling better.
But insomnia is no joke and it can affect both performance and the general atmosphere around the workplace – a major cause of anxiety, irritability and lack of concentration. Sleep disorders can contribute to more workplace errors and accidents, and reduced productivity due to absenteeism and work impairment. Anyone not able to enjoy three full nights’ sleep a week should recognise that they’ve got chronic sleep problems and seek help.
With over 80 known sleep disorders from snoring and sleep-walking to the more serious Narcolepsy (random sleeping during the day), you need to try to identify your particular problem and then consult your doctor or HR department for whatever hypnosis, behavioural therapy, herbal remedies or plain old sleeping-pills may be appropriate. The good news is that insomnia can get better by changing your current sleeping habits.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
Everybody is different. The amount of sleep required for a person can vary according to their age, their health and their occupation. You might need more sleep if you work a very physically demanding or mentally taxing job. But generally, adults are recommended to have 7-9 hours every night, whilst children are recommended 9-13 and toddlers or babies should be getting around 12-17 hours’ sleep a day.
Hopefully in this article, you are able to discover whether you are currently getting enough sleep, and what to do about it if you’re not. I understand that some of us find it more difficult to sleep straight through the night, or to dedicate that much time to sleep when you’ve so many other things to be doing. But sleep deprivation is linked to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and higher levels of the chemicals associated with inflammation. It also weakens the immune system and increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease, so it is a very serious issue.
I remind you that everyone is different. What works for one person may be less effective for another. That is why it is important to find what works for you. This might involve some trial and error, but it will benefit you in the long term. Me? I’m a power-nap devotee myself. So, do you experience difficulties sleeping at night? Any tips worth sharing?