Why getting enough sleep is good for business

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By Karen Plum, director, Advanced Workplace Associates

World Sleep Day is Friday 16 March

The latest research from Advanced Workplace Associates’ (AWA) looks at the factors that carry the greatest impact for cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and implement practices to help everyone to perform in peak condition. We’re often made aware of how important it is too get a good night’s rest, yet we also read headlines about business moguls “functioning” on just a couple of hours each night. What we’ve found is that sleep is connected to many other things in our lives and relates to the other factors we need to bring our best brain to work with us. 

How important is sleep?

It’s simple – sleep helps our brains to perform properly, it quite literally prepares us for the following day. When you are asleep your body is busy repairing muscles, consolidating memories, releasing hormones and regulating growth and appetite. Without enough sleep, the body doesn’t have time to complete all of the phases, and as a result, we wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions, or engage fully with our daily tasks.

Research studies conclude that sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on almost all brain functions such as decision making, problem solving, memory, control over our emotions and behaviours as well as our ability to accommodate change. Without sufficient sleep, our reaction times may be slower, we’re likely to make more mistakes, and take longer to complete tasks. All of these will impact overall performance and also relationships at work.

According to the UK’s National Sleep Foundation, a working-age adult needs between seven and nine hours of uninterrupted, good quality sleep in order to be in peak condition the next day. However, despite wanting and needing good quality sleep, its often difficult to achieve, for a variety of reasons.

Poor quality sleep can be the result of different causes including difficulty getting to sleep, difficulty staying asleep (waking up often and finding it hard to get back to sleep), waking up early in the morning, disturbed sleep through noise, worry, children and other aspects that just wake us up. As a consequence, we may feel tired, irritable and unable to concentrate – it is also likely that we will try to function as normal and attempt to do the things we need to do without recognising that we are in fact sleep deprived.

Despite being well aware of the benefits of sleep, getting a good night’s sleep in our busy, pressured lives remains difficult. However, given what is at stake, trying to develop some new habits so that we can all perform better in the long run is undeniably worth it. If you’re one of the many people suffering from problems sleeping, you’ve probably already explored a few things that are supposed to help but do keep trying as there may be something that you haven’t attempted, that could work for you. 

A regular sleeping schedule can have a big impact

As often as you can, really try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. This can help establish a routine, reinforcing the body’s sleep-wake cycle – try creating a bedtime ritual. Experts believe that doing the same thing each night tells our bodies that it’s time to rest. Warm baths, reading or listening to relaxing music eases the transition between wakefulness and sleepiness.

Leave a few hours between dinner and bedtime, being sure not to eat a heavy meal right before bed. Protein-rich meals should be kept for breakfast and lunch when your body needs the energy. Don’t do any stimulating activities, such as working out at the gym, right before bed – they tend to keep you more alert and make relaxation difficult. Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are all stimulants and they can take hours to wear off. Although alcohol may initially induce sleep, it can disrupt it later in the night as the body metabolises the alcohol, causing arousal.

Struggling to concentrate? Sleep on it

Sleep pods are popping up everywhere in the latest workplaces, and they do provide a designated place to go and rest, but if you’ve had a bad night, or a run of bad nights and you’re struggling to concentrate during the day, how many of us could say we’d happily take a nap in the office? That being said, providing places for naps is one thing, whereas, employees feeling comfortable taking a nap is something else.

Is it more important that you continue to force your brain to concentrate and perform when it really can’t, or would it be more economical to take a power nap and recharge? This links to our research on productivity – where we explored trust and the supportiveness of managers towards their staff. If you have a supportive manager and feel trusted by them and your colleagues, then it’s more likely you’d feel comfortable taking a nap if you really need one. If you feel that others don’t value you or are skeptical about what you are doing – then taking a nap would probably help reinforce those negative perceptions. Whether you are an employer or employee, if you’re seriously considering rest breaks in your workplace, you’ll need to talk discuss it and establish naps as part of the range of acceptable work practices. Gauge opinions and ensure you have  mutual trust and sound working relationships, so that when you come to implement sleep as a workplace behaviour, everyone is on board and understands what is expected.