16 March 2021

A wide angle shot of a starry night sky

When it comes to sleep, less is not more

Sleep is often the ubiquitous thing we need more of, yet readily sacrifice to ‘get it all done’.

While only a handful of hours asleep is lauded from high achievers and the rich and famous alike, our habit of sleep deprivation has come from the acceptance of it as necessary.

The truth is, we know it doesn’t benefit us.

The quality of our rest and sleep cycles has been widely impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns. In lockdown conditions, without the normal ‘markers’ of the day and strict routines, studies have found that the quality of people’s sleep has suffered.

Unsurprisingly, these studies show a dramatic change to sleep routines in lockdown circumstances, such as going to sleep later, getting up later, and more daytime naps [iii].

 

Losing sleep

In a poll by APM on LinkedIn, 64 per cent of people said their quality of sleep suffered during a COVID-19 lockdown. Including 21 per cent who rated their sleep as ‘Terrible’.

 

Why is sleep so important?

“Good sleep is an essential component of good health”, explains Dr Nicholas Mabbott, Director of Beyond Midnight Consulting.

“The quality and quantity of your sleep can impact every part of your life – how you feel, how you interact with others, how you perform at work.”

Numerous studies have highlighted clear links between poor sleep and poor mental health.

Studies have also shown by improving sleep habits, you can improve mental health conditions. It isn’t just mental health that is affected by sleep quality.

Conditions such as cancer, heart disease and musculoskeletal injury have all been identified by researchers as having more positive recovery patterns due to improved sleep.

 

More is more

“Sleep is a highly personal thing,” says Dr Mabbott.

“As a general rule, at least seven and a half hours (7.5) per night is important.”

“One isolated night of poor sleep isn’t going to cause problems, but if it becomes a habit to sleep less than the recommended amount, health consequences will start to creep in.”

 

A clock, whose face is partially lit by a circle of light

 

Good sleep is essential to recovery

According to Samantha Breust, General Manager, Konekt Workcare, good sleep during injury recovery is critical.

“It can often be overlooked in a ‘traditional’ recovery program, but our team have found that identifying and addressing sleep issues can be a real game-changer for some clients.”

“In our work with people trying to recover from injury and return to work, we know that improving sleep can be the catalyst for vast improvement” she said.

In simple terms, sleep is our body’s reset button.

When we sleep, we focus our energy on healing and repair. Our blood flow is improved, flooding our body with oxygen and nutrients.

Hormones, such as growth hormone and prolactin, allow our body to build protein, regenerate tissue, and manage inflammation.

There is even evidence that good sleep helps your body respond better to treatments and physical therapies.

“We often see rapid and substantial improvements in resilience and behaviour, leading to far better outcomes,” Samantha Breust said.

 

A woman sitting in consultation with her doctor, reviewing an Xray scan

 

Sleep and work

When we get enough sleep, we perform better – whether it’s at work or in an academic or athletic endeavour.

Conversely, fatigue arising from poor or insufficient sleep, as well as a range of work and non-work-related factors has wide-reaching negative effects.

Fatigue can be responsible for a range of performance issues such as:

  • Slower reaction times
  • Poor mood
  • Inattention and difficulty focusing
  • Poor hand-eye co-ordination
  • Communication difficulties
  • Poor mental processing and problem solving
  • Greater inclination for risk-taking
  • Lack of awareness of performance limitations

A study conducted by Dawson & Reid [iii] found that 17 hours without sleep is equivalent to driving with blood alcohol level of 0.05%. After 24 hours without sleep, it increases to an equivalent of 0.1%.

 

Fatigue can have disastrous consequences

  • Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster - Because of a lack of sleep and sleep-deprived shift work, poor judgments were made when launching the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986. According to reports, crucial managers had slept less than two hours the day before the disaster, with many staff working since 1 a.m. on the day of the launch.
  • Chernobyl Nuclear Plant – One of the major factors contributing to the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant was human error. Investigators concluded operator fatigue, attributed to 13-hour shifts, was a leading contributor to the human error that led to the explosion [iv].
  • Around 20% of fatal road accidents involve driver fatigue - If a driver falls asleep for just four seconds while travelling at a speed of 100 km/h the car will have gone 111 metres without a driver in control [v].
  • David* can’t remember his accident – he does remember being pulled from his truck cabin from a ditch beside the Hume Highway. He had pushed the limits of his tiredness too far. He is grateful to still be around for his wife and three young boys, but the pathway ahead following multiple surgeries is long and uncertain. * Not his real name – client of Konekt Workcare

 

A man leaning against a window, with his hand gripping his forehead, displaying stressed body language

 

What can workplaces do about sleep?

“Unfortunately as we have no way of measuring fatigue, it can be tricky.” agrees Dr Mabbott.

“Proactivity is key if you’re a supervisor or leader there are signs you can look for in your team members. Leaders need to role-model the right behaviours and build sleep-positive cultures, supported by education on making good sleep choices.”

 

How to role model good sleep habits

  1. Don’t glorify sleeplessness or fatigue - Be disciplined in how and when you talk about late nights, and if necessary use scheduling tools to avoid sending emails and messages late at night.
  2. Be disciplined about the sleep choices you make – know what time you need to go to bed to get your full 7.5 hours.
  3. Build a good ‘going to bed’ routine – giving yourself at least 30 minutes before your designated sleep time to calm your mind.
  4. Good sleep is a group effort - Make sure your family understand why you are being so disciplined about going to bed, and how good sleep is beneficial to your daily performance.
  5. Eat well – low G.I. foods will make sure you don’t wake before you should. This is especially important for shift workers.
  6. Exercise regularly - this gives your brain and your body the triggers it needs to get the most out of your sleep.
  7. Support your team to take rest and recovery breaks – this is especially important for those who are working through injury, illness or personal challenges. They will recover faster with good quality rest, resulting in more sustainable performance outcomes.

Ultimately, better performance is about making healthier choices.

“You need to think carefully about your priorities,” advises Dr Mabbott.

“Most of the issues we hear are from people trying to squeeze more and more into their days and nights – meaning they are sacrificing sleep.

"It’s a tough choice, but making the active decision to prioritise rest and sleep more during the week means you are much better company for your family, friends and colleagues.”

 

Further Resources

 

Sources

[i] Gupta R, Grover S, Basu A, et al. Changes in sleep pattern and sleep quality during COVID-19 lockdown. Indian J Psychiatry. 2020;62(4):370-378. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_523_20
[ii] Franceschini C, et al. Poor Sleep Quality and Its Consequences on Mental Health During the COVID-19 Lockdown in Italy. Front Psychol. 2020 Nov 9;11:574475. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.574475. PMID: 33304294; PMCID: PMC7693628.
[iii] Dawson, D., Reid, K. Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature 388, 235 (1997).
[iv] Optalert: How fatigue played a role in some of the world's biggest disasters
[v] Transport Accident Comission Victoria (TAC): Fatigue Statistics
 

Author

Sarah Denness

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