Author: Tom Bivins, Head of Ergonomics and Wellbeing
For several months we’ve heard Boris Johnson’s mantra that he and his government have “followed the science”.
Well let me ask you a question. Do you follow the science? This isn’t a question about social distancing or wearing face masks, but instead ‘did you wake up this morning feeling refreshed and well rested’? Or did you have to drag yourself out of bed and need to drink a cup of coffee before you could even begin to consider dealing with home-schooling or joining your first Teams meeting. If you did need that cup of coffee then it’s likely that you’re not following the science.
Darwin wasn’t wrong. Sleep is an absolutely vital function, yet it’s thought that around three quarters of British adults don’t get enough sleep. In the competitive corporate world, a place where I’ve spent most of my career, the need to identify and reduce health and safety risks; to attend to mental and physical health conditions; to promote employee wellbeing; and to constantly look at new ways of optimising operational efficiencies is commonplace.
The need to sleep isn’t a novel or new idea. Despite lacking the volume of research we have on sleep today, even Shakespeare noted that sleep was the “Chief nourisher in life’s feast”. But we ignore the science. We burn the candle at both ends. We tell ourselves that we can catch-up with sleep at the weekend, and we rely on caffeine to get us through the day. We cannot catch-up on lost sleep, and what’s worse is that we actually become acclimatised to the impaired performance, lowered alertness and reduced energy levels, all of which are linked to sleep deprivation.
It doesn’t end here. Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce performance, and cognitive functioning; increase blood pressure and the production of stress hormones; increase the risk of accidents and road related deaths; increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type two diabetes, mental health conditions and compromise the immune function. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
We have to listen to the science, and we have to change our behaviours. The process of change however should not be focussed solely at the individual level. Instead, policy makers, business leaders, and CEO’s need to act. If the need to act wasn’t stimulated by the reasons I’ve already mentioned, then a quick glance at the economic implications of sleep deprivation might help to nudge them in the right direction: The economic cost due to insufficient sleep in the UK is estimated to be approximately £36 billion and causes over 200 thousand working days lost per year.
So what can be done to help tackle this global sleep epidemic.
Advice for policy makers and public authorities:
- Raise the awareness of the benefits of sleep: people tend to know that sleep’s important, but don’t understand the health consequences of sleep deprivation and strategies to combat it.
- Improve health professional’s knowledge of sleep-related health so that they’re better equipped to identify, support and signpost individuals suffering from sleep disorders.
- Encourage employers to pay more attention to the importance of sleep and provide evidence-based support and best-practice guidelines for those working shift/night work.
- Ensure employers remain compliant with all their legal responsibilities, such as maximum working hours, and minimum rest periods.
Advice for employers:
- Understand the role you play promoting sleep: Have you considered the role that sleep plays in operational performance and safety? This might mean that you have to reflect on your organisational culture: do you praise those employees who work long hours, or do you focus on the quality of the work? You might also have to revisit some risk assessments. For example, if your employees drive company cars how do you enforce rest breaks or ensure they don’t place other road users at risk by driving the length and breadth of the country for meetings?
- Encourage employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Excessive use of electronic devices especially when in used addition to their normal working hours can have a negative impact on employee’s sleep. Employers need to make clear what’s expected of them and consider creating policies to limit after-hours communications and encourage them not to check or respond to emails when on leave.
- Encourage health screenings. Sleep problems are often rooted in underlying physical or psychological causes. Stress, obesity, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol all negatively affect sleep. It’s therefore useful for employers to encourage health screenings which can help to identify any issues that might be affecting sleep, some of which aren’t always obvious.
- Consider where and when people work. Being flexible and allowing employees to work from home can minimise travel time and shorten their working day. Also giving employees more control over their working hours, and minimising working hours variability has also been shown to improve the quality of sleep.
Advice for employees:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time can help to programme your body to sleep better.
- Exercise is fantastic, but not too late in the day. Exercising for at least 30 minutes on most days will make you feel physically fatigued and can help to prevent stress and obesity. Try not to exercise for the last two to three hours before bed though, as it can have a stimulating effect.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. These have all been shown to impair sleep quality.
- Limit the time in bed on activities other than sleeping. With the exception of sex, try to avoid other non-sleep activities such as watching TV or working. This helps to maintain a strong, learned association between the bed and sleep.
- Don’t take naps after 3pm. Power naps can help to momentarily improve concentration but if taken after 3pm can be detrimental to your normal sleep routine.
- Get the night-time chills. The temperature of our bedroom is often an underappreciated factor in determining the ease in which you’ll fall asleep. Aim to have a bedroom temperature of a little over 18°C. The reason hot baths can help us to fall asleep is because it actually has an effect of lowering our core temperature when we get out of the bath.
- Have a dark bedroom that’s free of electronic devices. We sleep better and for longer when in complete darkness so consider blackout blinds. Using electronic devices can stimulate us and inhibit melatonin release, a hormone that helps to facilitate the transition to sleep so put your phone or Ipad down.
- If you can’t sleep, get up. Tossing and turning or constantly checking the time can make getting to sleep a real challenge. So rather than worrying about it, get up and do something that you find relaxing until you feel sleepy again, then go to bed.
- If you find that sleep is becoming a problem don’t suffer in silence. Speak to your employer and get in touch with your GP. There’s lots of support available to help improve your sleep, and also rule out the risk of other health conditions.
Hopefully this has made you think more seriously about sleep. So, whether you’re an employee wanting to exceed your performance targets, a CEO trying to navigate the business world, or a policy maker my advice to you is this…Follow the science and dream big.