The importance of sleep
Tuesday 11th November
Benenden Group’s HR Director, Inji Duducu talks about the implications of having a sleep deprived workforce…
Sleep. I love it. When I wake up in the morning my first thought is often what time I’ll be able to crawl back into bed. And despite often getting eight hours a night, I still feel this way. I discovered why last year when I had some time out from work. For the first time since childhood I was able to let my body determine how much sleep I got. It turns out, it wants 8.5 hours a night. I aim for 8, and for various reasons I often get less - so I am back to being permanently sleep deprived. But I am far from alone. Perhaps one of the key things we need to ask ourselves is: “What are the implications of having a sleep deprived workforce for organisations?”
Anyone who has had a baby will know the effects of long-term sleep deprivation on quality of thinking. Getting enough sleep is the number one element of resilience and leadership stamina – there is simply no substitute. Neuroscience is able to show us that sleep deprivation has a greater impact on any and all cognitive tasks than blood alcohol – if you are even moderately weary, then you might as well be drunk. We wouldn’t dream of encouraging employees to work drunk, but tiredness? That seems to be quite normal.
We know that the different phases of sleep we go through each serve a different cognitive renewal purposes - so if you’re skimping on your slumber, you’re probably not benefitting from them all. Slow wave sleep allows you to commit items to memory. Regions of the brain that are most important for memory, emotion and general cognitive processing are more active than when awake. This includes areas of the brain involved in regulation of emotions and self control (with obvious implications for effective leadership).
One part of the brain which is much less active during sleep is the logical part of the brain – the loosening of this regulator helps us to think more creatively, see connections and patterns and make unusual links. Just think about the crazy and nonsensical things which happen in your dreams without your logic interfering. Studies have shown that people perform better in pattern spotting test (including those which require memory recall of items) after sleep than 20 minutes after seeing the items. What does this tell us? That if you need your people to be creative and innovative, then they need to be getting a good night's sleep.
Sleep is also specifically linked to recall of positive and neutral information – if we haven’t slept, we react more than we normally would to negative information. Think of the leadership implications of having difficulty seeing positive and neutral information - and only being able to see the bad.
Finally, chronic poor or lack of sleep leads to a release of the stress hormone cortisol which is linked to increased incidence of immunosuppression, high blood pressure, loss of bone density and type 2 diabetes.
All this shows us one thing - for an effective, motivated, creative, positive workplace, everyone, you included, needs to be getting a good night’s sleep.
What you can do
- Try and get more sleep, even another 20 mins a day will make a difference. If you can take a “power nap” in the middle of the day, you’ll consolidate the morning and start afresh. Google have introduced sleep pods for this purpose.
- If you can’t sleep, the next best thing is a “sleep proxy”: taking the brain offline. Go for a walk, try a short meditation.
- Know how much sleep you need. Humans have a bell curve of sleep requirement, with 8 hours being the average and at the extremes people need as little as 4 or as many as 12 hours. There is a myth that if you were just tougher, cared more, tried harder you can make do with less sleep. The reality is you are not going to have peak performance if you are sleep deprived.
What you can do as a manager
Employee health and well being is massively moving up the workplace agenda, and sleep is a big part of that. If you manage people, it makes sense to do what you can to promote them getting enough rest. Here are some thoughts from me on how you can help:
- Talk about it. Share this article and ask for their reactions. Find out what would have to change for them to get another 20 mins sleep a day. Consider setting it as an objective if you're convinced it will improve performance.
- Role model it. Start adopting good sleep behaviours and share with your team how it's benefitting you. Role model leaving on time and pick up on presenteeism.
- Be sensitive. Your team may be going through things in their life that are affecting their sleep. When my son was a few months old and I'd had almost no sleep the night before, in addition to months of sleep deprivation, I was slumped on my desk at work when my boss came over and I (momentarily) snapped to attention. Instead of delivering a reprimand, he looked at me and said very gently "Inji, you're no use to anyone like this. Go home, get some sleep, be with your family and come back tomorrow". It's safe to say he has my undying loyalty.
- Make sure you are an organised manager. People who delegate ineffectively (either not giving enough clarity or short deadlines) are likely to be increasing the workload of their people by not letting them plan effectively, and therefore eating into their leisure (and possible sleep) time.
Sleep well all.
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