The brain is ‘cleaned’ by sleep, offloading the amyloid data implicated in Alzheimer’s
If your work or working hours are coming between you and a good night’s sleep, you’re doing yourself no favours
Corporate life is not short of high-profile examples – of people who don’t need a lot of sleep. Donald Trump (three to four hours), Richard Branson (five to six hours) and Elon Musk (six hours) all fall into this category, but they are the exception, not the rule.
It is rare to find people who function well on less than six hours a night and only between 1 and 3 per cent of the world’s population have the so-called “Thatcher genome” (Mrs T slept just four hours a night) which is a genetic mutation that makes it possible to survive on minimal shut-eye. The eight hours slept by Bill Gates is much more the norm while Albert Einstein needed 10 and poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson advised humans to “finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two”.
“Humans can function without food for far longer than they can live without sleep, yet sleep is one of the first things to take a hit when we decide we need more time in our day
Organisations are good at measuring things. Profits, sales, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, efficiency and return on investment all get added up under the banner of performance metrics. But one number that rarely gets crunched is how many hours of sleep employees get despite the fact that even small amounts of deprivation can have an impact on productivity, cognition and mood.
Humans can function without food for far longer than they can live without sleep, yet sleep is one of the first things to take a hit when we decide we need more time in our day. Poor decision-making and impaired concentration are some of byproducts of dysfunctional sleep that make their way into the workplace, yet sleep doesn’t headline in employee wellness programmes the way exercise, nutrition or mental health do even though corporate culture plays a role in how well a workforce sleeps.
Sleep experts say we should stop working at least three to four hours before going to bed. However, if it’s accepted practice within an organisation to send work texts and emails out of hours with the expectation of a response then that unwinding time is jeopardised, and disturbed sleep may follow especially if the message content is unsettling.
Respecting people’s switch-off point should be a given, yet employees constantly complain about their phones pinging at night and weekends with messages about things that could have waited.
Sleep is not an indulgence. It’s not like going from economy class to business. If you don’t sleep, you don’t fly — Dr Mary Flaherty
Up to a decade ago, researchers thought sleep was important for reasons ranging from boosting the immune system to regulating metabolism. Then researchers discovered the brain is “cleaned” during sleep and offloads toxic byproducts such as the amyloid data implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Sleep is not an indulgence. It’s not like going from economy class to business. If you don’t sleep, you don’t fly,” says psychologist Dr Mary Flaherty, author of the recently-released Keys to a Contented Life, a self-help book which Flaherty says was inspired by “science, monks and my mother” and aims to provide readers with advice about making the “best of the bad lot which is the human condition”.
Any behaviour that puts sleep schedules out of whack with normal daylight exposure can cause a problem, she says.
“Humans are diurnal. We’re designed to be awake when it’s light out and asleep when it’s dark. The problem is that these days, all of us act like shift workers,” Flaherty says. “We keep irregular schedules, go to bed long after the sun has set, follow different bedtime schedules on weekdays and weekends and often look at bright screens at night.
“Staying up for 20 to 25 hours affects our performance more than if we were legally drunk. Even simple activities, like having a conversation, become difficult. When we sleep consistently for five or less hours, we also increase our chances of obesity by 50 per cent.”
The good news is that working from home is an ideal opportunity to break bad sleep patterns and establish a work routine that aligns with the body’s circadian rhythm.
“As light is the most powerful influence on circadian rhythms, we can take advantage of this when working from home by going outside right after we wake up to get daylight even if it is overcast. Exposure to natural light, especially early in the day, helps reinforce the strongest circadian cue, which among other things boosts our immunity,” Flaherty says.
If possible, I’d also encourage those working from home to take a nap in the early afternoon when performance begins to drop
— Dr Mary Flaherty
“Activity during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at night so schedule a walk, a gym session or a yoga class to break the working day. If possible, I’d also encourage those working from home to take a nap in the early afternoon when performance begins to drop. Naps boost learning, alertness, creativity and all kinds of cognitive performance. Fifteen or 30 minutes really helps, but 90 minutes is ideal as the cycle will be complete and as beneficial as a night’s sleep.”
Asked about those working from home whose working day is linked to a different time zone, Flaherty says it’s still possible to get a good night’s sleep by following a few simple guidelines.
“Exercise in the morning, ideally outdoors,” she says. “Prioritise your workload and do the more challenging tasks as early as possible in the day. Make sure to decompress for a few hours before bed and discipline yourself to not go back to your devices for browsing or social media after you finish work at 8pm or 9pm because at this time the melatonin is already rising in your body and getting you ready for rest and sleep is medicine.”