A simple guide to sleeping well

Publication date: 12 January 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Poor sleep leads to diminished performance and productivity and increased health and safety risks, so it must be addressed by individuals and organisations, writes Dr Neil Stanley

SleepGood sleep plays an important role in our working lives. Poor sleep can undermine important aspects of business and leadership behaviour and potentially hurt financial performance, as the majority of business tasks rely on higher-order cognitive processes, such as

  • problem solving
  • reasoning
  • organising
  • inhibition
  • planning
  • executing plans.

The problem is that these important processes are all associated with the prefrontal cortex area of the brain and this specific area has seen to be particularly sensitive to sleep deprivation. Thus, poor sleep leads to diminished performance and productivity and well as increased health and safety risks, all of which can lead to a negative effect on your profitability. In terms of the economic cost of poor sleep to a business, this has been estimated to be approximately $3,000 per individual and, on an overall basis, around 1.5-2% GDP in industrialised nations.

Research has confirmed that sleep deprivation impairs the ability to focus attention selectively and that a good night’s sleep leads to new insights, improved decision making and the ability to weigh the relative significance of different inputs accurately. It helps people to avoid tunnel vision and reduces cognitive bias.

Business relationships naturally require interaction with people and the ability to accurately ‘read’ their emotions either face to face or electronically. Poor sleep causes you to misinterpret these cues; overreact to emotional events and to express your feelings in a more negative manner and tone of voice.

‘The economic cost of poor sleep to a business, this has been estimated to be approximately $3,000 per individual’

For example, it could lead to individuals misreading body language or misinterpreting emails. This inevitably leads to an increase in staff conflicts and aggressive behaviour in the workplace. Poor sleep leads to a lack of empathy which can cause problems with your customer-facing staff, particularly those dealing with complaints. People who have not had enough sleep are also less likely to trust someone else fully – which is probably a wise thing given that poor sleep has also been shown to contribute to an increase in dishonest behaviour, such a cheating. Interestingly, workers can actually tell if their boss has had a bad night sleep and react more negatively to them as a result.

Businesses’ role in promoting sleep 

Do businesses have a responsibility for their employees’ sleep? It could be argued that your staff are paid to work and that what they do in their non-work time is none of your concern and certainly not your responsibility. However, if work intrudes into non-work time then that definitely is an organisation’s responsibility.

One good way for companies to make a difference to their employees’ sleep is allow them to work only for the hours they are paid to work. If you only pay your employees for eight hours, why do you expect them to more work more than this, for free? If an employee puts in an extra hour once in a while, say ‘thank you’ and buy them a doughnut.

If they are consistently working more than an hour extra, then pay them for this time (giving them time off in lieu is a con; if they are working so hard, they are never going to be able to take it). However, if this is happening regularly, it is probable that they are not the only person working extra hours, so perhaps you should hire another member of staff. The unspoken threat that your employee needs to do unpaid extra hours if they want to keep their jobs may have been partially true during the recession but now it is simply unfair.

It’s also important that company policy that states unless it is a dire emergency you don‘t communicate with each other outside agreed times; for example, you cannot be contacted about work more than an hour before or after your shift.

‘Workers can tell if their boss has had a bad night sleep and react more negatively to them’

However, while there are things that the company can do to help, employees have a much greater responsibility for their own sleep. Your employees have a responsibility to turn up fit for work, and that includes having had sufficient sleep to perform their role. To do otherwise means that they become a health and safety liability. In the same way they would not turn up to work drunk they should not turn up to work sleepy. They should certainly not expect their boss to provide a ‘nap-pod’ to help them recover from their marathon box set binge whatever else they were doing.

Good sleep is fundamental to employee’ health, safety and productivity and ultimately the bottom line, so here is a brief guide to sleeping well.

How to sleep well

  1.  Have a fixed wake-up time, every day of the week. Your body and brain start preparing to wake up approximately 90 minutes before you actually do so, so if you have a fixed waking time, the body and brain know when they are going to wake and can prepare accordingly.
  2. Cultivate a ‘quiet mind’. You cannot fall asleep if your mind is whirring with the cares of the day. The first thing to do is to put the day to bed a couple of hours before you actually go to bed; so, after a certain time don’t open the gas bill, check your work email or have a heated political discussion with your partner. Instead, do something that quietens the mind. For some people, this can be reading a book or listening to music, for others it can be a warm bath or a mug of a hot milky drink. Don’t actively try to fall asleep – the harder you try, the less likely you are to do so.
  3. Keep your bedroom cool. During the night the body needs to lose heat and a cool bedroom facilitates this. Many experts say that the ideal temperature for the bedroom is 16-18oC (60-65oF), although this is a matter of personal preference.
  4. Get the right amount of sleep for you. Sleep needs are individual, like height or shoe size and, to a large degree, genetically determined. Anywhere between 4-11 hours can be considered normal; what is important is that you get the right amount of sleep for you. Simply put, if you feel awake, alert and function at a high level during the day, you are probably getting enough sleep. If you feel sleepy during the day then you are probably not sleeping enough.
  5. Consider separate beds or even bedrooms. Your bed partner can play a large role in your sleep disturbance. Not sleeping together, if it works for you both, is a mature pragmatic solution to a problem and has no bearing on the strength, or otherwise, of your relationship. Lack of ‘intimacy’ would be much more suggestive of a problem.
  6. Avoid caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is a stimulant and different people have different sensitivities to its effects. If you think caffeine is negatively affecting your sleep, avoid it after a set time each day.
  7. Eat lightly (but sufficiently) in the evening. A heavy meal close to bedtime may make you feel uncomfortable when you go to bed. If you eat a lot close to bed time, it means your body has to burn off the calories, raising your body temperature and causing restless sleep. Of course, going to bed hungry can be just as disruptive to sleep, so be sure to eat enough to enable a good night’s rest.
  8. Establish a regular bedtime schedule. Having a wind-down routine before bed can aid restful sleep. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but your bed-time routine should be a pleasure, not a chore – whatever works for you is right.
  9. Put away your electronic devices.  Avoid blue light from smartphones, computers and other devices for 45 minutes before bed. Blue light has been shown to suppress melatonin production. Melatonin is a key signal to the body that it’s time to fall asleep, so it is important to avoid exposure to it prior to lights out. Note that blue-light filters don’t actually solve the problem.
  10. Make time for sleep. Sleep is vitally important to physical, mental and emotional health, so make time for it in your life. Prioritise sleep: it should not be the thing you do after everything else. A good night’s sleep should be a pleasure, so you should want to go to sleep, rather than resent it.

‘If work intrudes into non-work time then that definitely is an organisation’s responsibility’

Dr. Neil Stanley is an independent sleep expert and the author of How to Sleep Well: The Science of Sleeping Smarter, Living Better and Being Productive (Capstone, July 2018).

He started his career in sleep in 1982 at the age of 16 when he got a job in the Neurosciences Division of the RAF. Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM) in Farnborough, Hampshire. In 1993, he took a position at the Human Psychopharmacology Research Unit (HPRU), part of the University of Surrey, where he eventually became Director of Sleep Research, creating and running a 24-bed trials sleep laboratory, primarily designed for clinical trials into the effects of medication on sleep. In 2004, he received his PhD from the University of Surrey on the basis of his published works.

He is a member of the European Sleep Research Society, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, British Sleep Society (Chairman 2000–2004, Committee member 1998–2000), European Society of Sleep Technologists. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the Assembly of National Sleep Societies (2004–2009) and through that is a co-author of the guidelines for accreditation of Sleep Medicine Centres; guidelines for Sleep Medicine Education in Europe, and standard procedures for Adult Sleep Medicine.

In addition to setting up a clinical sleep service at the HPRU, he was involved in setting up and developing the sleep service at The London Clinic, and has worked freelance for Scansleep in Copenhagen and the Lovisenberg Hospital in Oslo.

For more information see www.thesleepconsultancy.com