Research has found that workers who sleep less than 6 hours a night are less productive than people who sleep between 7 and 9 hours. According to Matt Walker, professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at University of California, Berkeley, back in the 1940’s people were sleeping over 6 hours a night and this has now declined to 6.5 to 6.8 hours. In 70 years this a 20% loss in sleep.
What’s contribution to sleeploss?
Caffeine – keeps us awake
Alcohol – fragments our sleep and suppresses dreaming
Central heating and air conditioning – our bodies expect the thermal lull which happens when the sun sets and temperatures drop. We have dislocated ourselves from the natural ebb and flow which tells us its time for sleep.
Technology – LED screens emitting powerful forms of blue light put the brakes on the natural release of a hormone called melatonin which signals when we should sleep.
Modern early rising movement – the economic and social pressure to work more and sleep less.
Nick Littlehales, is a sleep coach who has also worked as a sleep coach for Premier League football teams such as Manchester United and for elite athletes including British Olympians, says he increasingly advises corporate clients. “A number of companies have been in touch to try and find a way to educate their teams on sleep deprivation” Nick adds, “How well you sleep at night depends on what you do throughout the day from the point of waking onwards,” who has written a book, The Myth of 8 hours, the power of naps and the plan to recharge your body and mind”.
Mr Littlehales believes we sleep in 90-minute cycles — from dozing off, through light sleep, deep sleep, to the Rapid Eye Movement dream stage, to waking up and falling back to sleep again — and says we should aim to achieve an optimum number of cycles a night (for the average person 35 cycles per week is ideal). By viewing our sleep time as flexible, he says, we should not become overly worried by the occasional bad night.
In his consultations, Nick advises staff to leave their desks and take short breaks every 90 minutes to aid mental and physical recovery from their work so they sleep better at night. He also encourages companies to allow staff to take occasional short naps in the office. “After we’ve been awake for a certain amount of time we get to a point where we need to take a rest to boost alertness and improve performance,” he says. “If you show staff how they can nap naturally it can bring big benefits to your company.” In response to advice such as Mr Littlehales’, a number of US companies have introduced on-site napping including Google — which has installed futuristic-looking sleep pods in its offices — Nike and Ben & Jerry’s.
- Do not look at electronic devices in the hour before bed. The blue light they emit disrupts the brain’s natural sleep-wake cycles.
- Sleep quality is all about what we do from the point of waking. Get up at the same time every day and leave your desk and take short breaks throughout the day to boost mental and physical recovery so that you find it easier to switch off and sleep at night.
- Identify workers’ chronotypes — whether they work better in the morning or later in the day — and look at where people sit in the office. Put the “PMers”, who are better later in the day, near the window in the morning to keep their serotonin levels up and provide “AMers” with daylight simulator lamps for when they start to flag in the afternoon.
- Allow staff to take short naps in the afternoon. Even if people just close their eyes for a few minutes at their desks after lunch it will help them stay more alert and productive.
Sleep and the health of your brain
A study which recruited 3,700 students (struggling with sleep problems) from across UK universities randomised the group into 2.
One group received six sessions of online CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) aimed at improving their sleep; the other group got standard advice.
Ten weeks into the study, the students who received CBT reported a halving in rates of insomnia, accompanied by significant improvements in scores for depression and anxiety, plus big reductions in paranoia and hallucinations.
This is thought to be the largest ever randomised controlled trial of a psychological treatment for mental health, and it strongly suggests that insomnia can cause mental health problems rather than simply be a consequence of them.
Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, who led that study thinks one of the reasons why sleep deprivation is so bad for our brains is because it encourages repetitive negative thinking.
“We have more negative thoughts when we’re sleep-deprived and we get stuck in them,” he said.
Reassuringly he doesn’t think a few nights of bad sleep means you will become mentally ill. But he does think it increases the risk. “It’s certainly not inevitable,” he said. “In any one night, one in three people is having difficulty sleeping, perhaps 5% to 10% of the general population has insomnia, and many people get on with their lives and they cope with it. But it does raise the risk of a whole range of mental health difficulties.”
The positive side of this research is it implies that helping people get a good night’s sleep will go a long way to helping improve our sense of well-being.
Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, has even put a figure on it.
He claims: “Making $60,000 (£48,400) more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.”
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