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Sleep and Work

In the 1980’s I remember politicians and businessmen telling people how little sleep they needed to a run a country or a conglomerate. The magic figure seemed to be 4 hours with the implication being that if you slept any longer you wouldn’t be able to manage the pace of life and weren’t leadership material.

The perception that the pace of life is part of the cause why we don’t to sleep for long as we used to is an interesting but misleading one. Go back to the 1840’s and the introduction of the telegram meant that the middle and upper classes started to complain that their pace of life was too fast and the idea of a double sleep (1) started to change into the sleep pattern we have today.

Coming back to the present day, the issue of lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep is beginning to receive the same levels of attention as the menopause and working carers within a work context. It is estimated that 200,000 working days lost due to insufficient sleep each year in the UK. There is not a lot of research on sleep and work. However, research published in July 2016 by Hult International Business School suggests improving employees’ poor sleep may not only boost their health and wellbeing but may give businesses a competitive advantage. (2)

Why is lack of sleep getting lots of attention? I believe it’s because businesses are starting to look in more detail of the UK’s dismal record on levels of productivity over the past 12 years. While getting people to sleep better is not going to solve the countries productivity problem on it’s own, better sleep can as a contributor to living better, which may help people be more productive at work.

If you are sleeping poorly, recent research identified the following signs of how that can affect behavior in the workplace:

  • Decreased communication
  • Reduced performance
  • Greater risk taking
  • Increased intake of caffeine/energy drinks
  • Poor concentration/easily distracted
  • Poor mood/inappropriate behaviour (3)

A way of working out the best sleep pattern for you is find out where you are an owl or a lark (4) This can be important as it may indicate why you might not be sleeping properly. e.g. if your body clock is based around going to sleep early in the evening and you are consistently going to be later in the evening,

One of the most effective ways to help improve your sleep is to work out your circadian rhythm. Adults have a circadian rhythm of 90 minutes and this is very regular. The cycling of sleep follows this rhythm along with hunger and thirst, alertness and creativity. To work out the timing of your circadian rhythm, wait until the early afternoon and take a note of the time of when you yawn. This is a sign that you are your alertness is at your lowest and where you are most suspectable to go to sleep. You can then work out the times during the evening when you are most likely to go to sleep easily, by adding on 45 minutes to the time you yawned.  If you miss your optimal time to sleep, wait for around 45 minutes or until you yawn again and then should be able to go to sleep.

If you think that you don’t sleep well that are some practical things you can do to improve your sleep, these include:

  • Try not to eat 2 hours before you go to sleep. Digesting food will make your body active and produce sugar which will give you energy which will make it more difficult to go to sleep.
  • Try and set a regular time to go to bed and wake up including at the weekend.
  • Alcohol and caffeine intake can affect your sleep so try not to drink too much of either in the afternoon or evening.

While the issues around sleep and how much are or should be getting are not going to diminish whether from a business or personal point of view, It is important that everyone tries to maximize the quality of sleep they get. As ever change sometimes takes a long time to put be put in place, but I hope that you have found the practical steps in this blog useful.