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The Impact of sleep on wellness & productivity

Alex Johnston | 2nd September 2019

In today’s fast-paced and interconnected world, we are working longer hours than ever before – this massively affects our sleep patterns!

And we are sacrificing our sleep to do this. One-third of people in Britain are estimated to suffer from a lack of sleep on a regular basis. Poor quality sleep harms your brain’s reaction time, concentration, memory and decision-making ability. As this afflicts so many of us so regularly, it may well be the largest and most unrecognised problem in your business.

The NHS recommends that adults get a minimum of between 7-8 hours per night; however, it is estimated that working adults average only around 6.5 hours per night. A regular lack of sleep leads not only to low productivity at work but a host of health issues like obesity, heart disease, diabetes reduced fertility, immunity and a decreased life span.

Recent studies have shown that during sleep the brain flushes out waste proteins that have built up during the day. This is an imperative function for preventing Alzheimer’s and for imprinting new memories and skills that you experienced during wakefulness.

It’s important to realise that everybody is different and will have different needs when it comes to getting shut-eye. In this demanding world where people are juggling work and social commitments, people need to try to turn off their phones and themselves more often.

the effects of Circadian rhythm on sleep

The largest differentiating factor between sleepers is their “circadian rhythm”. This simply refers to the physical, mental and behavioural changes that the body adheres to on a 24-hour cycle. Generally, people tend to be most alert in the mid-morning, they then get tired again at roughly 3pm they are fully alert again by 6pm. The variation in when these peaks and troughs of tiredness occur make up a person’s “chronotype”. This dictates when they are at their most productive.

Some people have early cycles and some late; splitting the population into morning larks and night owls. It’s not that easy to change one’s circadian rhythm; if you have experienced jetlag you will know the feeling. Trying to force larks and owls to work on the same schedule may well be hindering both groups. It’s important to introduce an element of individual flexibility to counter this invisible threat:

Use Flexitime

You don’t have to let people come and go as they please, but a little flexibility goes a long way. By giving people the option of choosing their working hours, starting between 8-10am and leaving between 4-6pm, they can match their working hours with their natural rhythm. This will encourage a healthy work-life balance making them happier and more productive when they are in the office.

Set Realistic objectives

Setting unrealistic expectations for employees can make it harder for them to switch off at night. Today, we are constantly connected to our colleagues and work is bleeding into our personal lives more and more. By setting achievable goals and discouraging people from working in their designated time off, you can help people get the higher quality sleep they need.

Encourage Exercise

Working long hours prevents people from maintaining a healthy level of exercise. The Health and Safety Executive says just 30 minutes of exercise per day is enough to improve the quality of sleep. By encouraging your people to fit in some regular activity either pre, post or during work hours you may notice an increase in the quality of work they output.

Keep regular shift patterns

We discussed earlier how hard it is to change your circadian rhythm. This is particularly pertinent for shift workers. Attempt to keep shift work as regular as possible with consistent start times. If you really must move someone onto a night shift, it is much better to wait until Monday and give them some time to adjust to the new cycle.

A slight perception change may be necessary to take on this style of management. Managers tend to assume that larks are more motivated and have higher performance than their nocturnal counterparts, even when the opposite may be true. I think this stems from the old idiom “the early bird catches the worm.” However we know now that we are not birds, we are humans; and worms exist at night too.

It’s time that we treat our employees like humans. Allow them the time to live fulfilled lives outside of the workplace and trust them to use strategies such as flexitime. From first-hand experience, I can bet it will not only improve their productivity but their mental and physical health too.