In our lives we feel better after a good sleep and worse without any. Sleep is vital for our careers too – is your career suffering through lack of sleep? Employees who nap at work have lower levels of stress, improved memory, cognitive function and general mood.
Why do we sleep?
We all know that we need sleep and that it makes us feel better. We know that just like hunger makes us want to eat, when we’re tired we want to sleep, whether through exercise, a hard day in the office or a day of driving. But why is it that our body needs to get a certain amount of ‘downtime’ in order to perform properly?
Some of the theories as to why we sleep include (Source: Why Do We Sleep, Anyway?):
Inactivity Theory – “One of the earliest theories of sleep, sometimes called the adaptive or evolutionary theory, suggests that inactivity at night is an adaptation that served a survival function by keeping organisms out of harm’s way at times when they would be particularly vulnerable.”
Energy Conservation Theory – “The energy conservation theory suggests that the primary function of sleep is to reduce an individual’s energy demand and expenditure during part of the day or night, especially at times when it is least efficient to search for food.”
Restorative Theories – “Sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. In recent years, these ideas have gained support from empirical evidence collected in human and animal studies.”
Brain Plasticity Theory – “One of the most recent and compelling explanations for why we sleep is based on findings that sleep is correlated to changes in the structure and organisation of the brain. This phenomenon, known as brain plasticity.”
The importance of sleep and the effects it has on both the body and mind cannot be underestimated.
Sleep improves your memory and ability to learn
We all need to be able to learn and remember things during our time at work and in our social lives. Not getting enough sleep negatively affects both these abilities. If you want to optimise how much you can remember and improve your ability to learn, then start to get a good night’s sleep.
From ‘Sleep, Learning and Memory‘ – “Sleep, learning, and memory are complex phenomena that are not entirely understood. However, animal and human studies suggest that the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.”
Memory and the ability to learn have been shown to be enhanced by night time sleep and even naps during the day. During sleep a process called memory consolidation occurs. During sleep your brain is busy making sense of the day and linking sights, sounds, experiences and events, forming memories. These memories include tasks completed at work, meeting and discussions you may have had with colleagues and research you may have conducted to complete a task.
In one study reported by the BBC, “Researchers at the New York University School of Medicine and Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School trained mice in a new skill – walking on top of a rotating rod. They then looked inside the living brain with a microscope to see what happened when the animals were either sleeping or sleep deprived. Their study showed that sleeping mice formed significantly more new connections between neurons – they were learning more.
And by disrupting specific phases of sleep, the research group showed deep or slow-wave sleep was necessary for memory formation. During this stage, the brain was “replaying” the activity from earlier in the day.”
Sleeping well improves focus and concentration
Depriving yourself of sleep has a negative impact on your ability to focus and concentrate. Everything from the drive to the office to staying focussed during an important meeting is affected by how well we slept the night before. It’s even been reported that less than eight hours sleep can actually lower your IQ the next day!
We’ve all seen the signs on the sides of roads regarding the dangers of driving while tired. If we know that it’s possible to fall asleep at the wheel through fatigue, even though it endangers our lives, why do we assume we can stay awake during a meeting after not getting enough sleep?
Getting enough sleep reduces stress
A lack of sleep is literally stressful to the body. To compensate this we produce more stress hormones, called adrenalin and cortisol.
In one study participants were given an exam that was deemed to be mildly stressful. When compared to those subjects who slept well the previous night, the subjects that were deprived of a good night sleep were more stressed.
Reducing stress not only means that we’re in a healthier state, both physically and mentally but it also means we’re less likely to require time off work as a result. Some of the common symptoms of stress include:
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgement
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
Stress can also affect professional relationships due to short temper, irritability and general moodiness. If your role includes collaboration and interaction with others then the lack of sleep can seriously impact these activities.
Sleep keeps you healthy
Getting enough sleep is an important factor in remaining healthy. A lack of sleep affects our immune system and leaves us more susceptible to infection and general colds and ailments that can be common in an office environment.
Having a cold not only affects our ability to complete day to day tasks at work, it also means we’re likely to pass the infection on to our colleagues, damaging productivity.
As well as reducing the risk of illness, getting enough sleep keeps us alert and less likely to have an accident. Being more aware of our surroundings and and what we’re doing means we’re less likely to have avoidable falls or hitting our heads through lack of spacial awareness.
Sleep makes you happier
When we get enough good quality sleep then we feel refreshed, happy and ready for the day ahead. These feelings all add up to a productive and engaged employee, eager to do well and get on with things. This state is not only good for you and your career, it’s also great for your employer as they’ve got a great employee doing a great job!
How you can improve your sleep
Sometimes these are obvious but there are also less obvious things that keep us awake or impact the quality of our sleep that we should all be avoiding.
Things to avoid include:
- High fat foods
- Caffeine (not just coffee but things that contain caffeine too, such as certain pills)
- Food that fills the stomach (a heavy meal)
- Spicy food
It’s also not a good idea to drink much right before going to bed, as you’ll increase the chances of having to get up to go to the toilet during the night.
Making sure that your bedroom is the right environment for sleep is very important. Setting the temperature so that it’s not too warm, using soothing colours and lighting and not having a TV are all great ways to improve your sleep habits.
Trusting your body and going to sleep when you’re tired, not when you’re finished watching TV or playing on the XBox is vital. Your body knows when you need to get rest.
Maintaining a regular and consistent pattern of sleep improves its effects. Try to go to bed and wake up at similar times every night. If you feel tired early in the evening try to avoid sleep there and then, wait for your regular time to go to bed.
If you need to change the times that you either go to bed or wake up, try to change the times in small increments rather than a sudden big change. Obviously, there will be the occasion where you’ll have to get up a lot earlier than usual and these instances are unavoidable.
Getting good and regular exercise also helps you to get the right amount of rest. Exercise will make you tired, but should be completed at least 3 hours prior to going to bed.