The importance of sleep for wellbeing and performance

A man sleeps in his chair at work

Getting a good night's sleep isn't always the easiest thing, but sleep deprivation can have serious negative effects at work

Many of my therapy clients tell me they have sleep problems and that this affects both their work and home life.  There is a myth that we all need eight hours of sleep each night, yet we hear of some people who function(ed) perfectly well on four or five hours – Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher to mention a renowned few.  Just as we all don’t eat the same food and drink the same drinks so we all have different requirements for sleep; it is therefore important that you arrange your life to meet the need of the amount of vital, restorative sleep you need to function effectively.

Some people wake up after four hours sleep due to nicotine withdrawal and new parents sometimes suffer sleep deprivation as their infant attempts to regulate its need for food; others wake up with the answer to a problem they set themselves during the day and can’t get back to sleep,  whilst others can’t get to sleep as they are worrying about an issue(s) identified during the day.

Recent work by Prof Christopher Barnes of University of Washington suggests that sleep-deprived workers act more unethically and have lower “moral awareness.” Moral awareness is the degree to which people recognise that they or those around them might be about to do something unethical. Someone with high moral awareness thinks about whether they are violating codes of ethics or moral principles. Someone with low moral awareness doesn’t realise it.

Read more: A fresh look at wellbeing

Other studies have shown that reduced sleep results in performance impairment equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 to 0.10 percent (0.08% is the legal limit in UK). Research also shows that sleep-deprived individuals often have difficulty in responding to rapidly changing situations and making rational judgements. The consequences can be grave and lack of sleep is said to have been be a contributory factor to a number of international disasters such as Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the Challenger shuttle explosion.

Sleep deprivation not only has a major impact on cognitive functioning but also on emotional and physical health. Research has also suggested that sleep loss may increase the risk of obesity because chemicals and hormones that play a key role in controlling appetite and weight gain are released during sleep.

Neuroscientists have found that sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex, which is the region of the brain that helps people control emotions and behaviours. Restorative sleep helps maintain existing levels of cognitive skills such as speech and memory as well as innovative and flexible thinking.

So whatever your needs are for sleep, it is vital you ensure you achieve all levels of restorative rest regularly and you awaken in the morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead!

About Ann McCracken

Ann McCracken is a Director of AMC2 and the vice president of the International Management Association (ISMA UK) – the professional body for stress management Practitioners.

She specialises in developing a positive and resilient working culture in organisations by introducing effective strategies in performance and wellbeing at all levels. The effectiveness of such a positive working culture is measured and assessed using AMC2 Corporate Diagnostic innovative surveys which include measurement of psychosocial factors, stress and wellbeing. Having initially trained as a scientist, she carried out research with DEFRA and consultancy in the NHS.

She spent 10 years in Education before retraining as a stress management practitioner in 1996. She is the author of Stress Gremlins©, regularly writes/broadcasts and is an external lecturer at Westminster University. She is also a Key Note/Motivational speaker/Conference Chair.

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