Sleep is a workplace issue

Sleep is vital for our functioning at work so managers need to take it more seriously, argues neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw.


Neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist Dr Lynda Shaw says good quality and enough sleep is essential to human survival and is vital to our mental and physical health and has a profound impact on our neurological performance. It should therefore be a management priority, she argues.

Why is sleep essential?

Sleep is a complex process, but, simply put, sleep-promoting cells within the hypothalamus and the brain stem produce a chemical called GABA which reduces senses of arousal in the brain stem and hypothalamus, sending us signals which make us feel tired. This is reinforced by an increased production of the sleep hormone melatonin sent by the pineal gland.

Once asleep, and as other parts of our bodies are resting, our brain spends time processing emotions, memories and replenishing our minds for the next day. The majority of this occurs during REM sleep, a phase which takes up about 20% of adult sleep. The cerebral cortex starts to process short and long-term memories with help from the thalamus which relays information from the senses such as images, sounds and other sensations. The amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, also increases in activity. The brain stem also plays a vital neurological role sending signals to our muscles so that they relax which is essential for body posture, energy renewal and limb movements.

It is also believed that during sleep the glymphatic system is opened and cerebral spinal fluid flushes out the days accumulation of toxins.  In fact, deep sleep is a time for recovery and repair, supporting the immune system and growth hormones.

Putting sleep on the management agenda is vital because it affects: 

  1. Physical health and stamina – Sleep is involved in the body’s healing process. Ongoing sleep deficiency can prevent healing, affect your immune system and increase inflammatory issues in your body and making you feel drained and weak. Lack of sleep is linked to heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
  1. Mental health and mood – Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling irritable and exhausted in the short-term, and suffering from burnout and anxiety, and has also been linked to depression in the long term.
  1. Memory and recall – Sleep has a profound influence over memory and recall and can increase the formation of false memories.
  1. Problem-solving ability – Good quality and quantity of sleep enhances creative problem-solving, concentration and cognitive abilities.
  1. Make mistakes or poor decisions – Sleep-deprived people are twice as likely to make easily avoidable mistakes or forget important things or fail to engage with logical thinking compared to colleagues.
  1. Creativity – Disrupted or diminished levels of REM sleep can slow down brain function negatively impacting creativity because the brain struggles to generate and remember new ideas.
  1. Emotional intelligence – Sleep helps us be more emotionally intelligent by helping us manage our emotions and build empathy.
  1. Engagement, concentration and focus – People who are sleep deprived have diminished levels of alertness and concentration, difficulty paying attention, brain fog, are easily confused and their judgement can be impaired.
  1. Workplace happiness – When we are sleep deprived, our risk of stress and poor mood and levels of stress and irritability all increase which is linked to our overall life satisfaction and workplace happiness and loyalty to our place of work.
  1. Safety – Fatigue is often blamed for a number of health and safety-related accidents at work as there is a clear, dangerous causal link between physical injury and sleep deprivation.

So what can employers do about it?

  1. Don’t encourage overworking. Being overworked, stressed and constantly multitasking means we are continually in a flight, fight or freeze response resulting in the over stimulation of cortisol and adrenalin which, in the long term, leaves us exhausted and at risk of serious illness. An overworked employee will never be as productive as one who has a good work/life/ sleep balance.
  1. Open conversations – Invite open discussion about the impact of sleep deprivation so that employees feel comfortable coming to you if they have concerns. Employees going through menopause, for example, are often sleep deprived due to hormonal changes but feel like it is a taboo subject. An open door policy and longer term planning and support is needed from the employer.
  1. Revise your supporting wellness programmes – Recognise and identify how sleep deprivation impacts workplace performance. Ensure that messaging around improving sleep and rest is clear as part of the company intranet and protocols.
  1. Offer flexibility – Whilst asking them to agree to core hours, allow your employees the opportunity to start work a bit later if that suits their normal bio-rhythms better. Many experts argue that a later starting time is optimal as it allows employees to have a full night’s sleep and perhaps get some exercise and fresh air first thing in the morning.
  1. Taking a day off for exhaustion – Businesses need to stop penalising employees when they legitimately take days off because they are exhausted. These are not for employees who are burning the candle at both ends and simply want a day at home to recover, but those who are genuinely struggling. Someone facing a temporary over-stressful home or personal issue should be regarded in the same way as someone who needs a few days off because of a physical illness such as a virus.
  1. Ensure best practice –Show your support to someone who is feeling exhausted by lengthening deadlines, having good planning in place and practising patience.  Employees will be more loyal, motivated and engaged as a result, which should be the goal of any business.
  1. Collaboration – Delegate tasks between employees and encourage collaboration. This will provide support to those who are struggling, whilst ensuring that all deadlines are still met.
  1. Identify with compassion – If you know that an employee is struggling at work due to sleep deprivation imagine yourself in their shoes. Find out from them what they need in the short term and see if it is something you can offer them. Whilst we all know sleep is important, many of us do not stop to recognise that it can affect just about every single part of our health and life, including work.

*Dr Lynda Shaw is a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.

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