Disrupted sleep makes it harder for us to think creatively and complete tasks. So why does sleep often come last in our hectic lives? And what can we do to fix bad habits?

“I only got six hours of sleep last night and I feel terrible.” “I know how you feel… I haven’t slept properly for weeks.”

Sadly these sorts of conversations with friends, family and workmates are becoming more common as our busy lives make sleep less of a priority for many people. But there’s little doubt that a good night’s sleep can make a world of difference to our day: how often have you been grouchy with co-workers, family members and friends, or struggled to pay attention at work or on your commute, because of a disrupted night of sleep?

And it’s not just during the day after that we can feel the repercussions of poor sleep: it can also have wide-ranging and long-term negative effects on our performance at work. Here we discuss why sleep is so important, the scale of our modern sleep-less society, how poor sleep affects our performance at work, and some simple steps you can take to improve your sleep.

 

Why sleep matters

Scientists are yet to discover exactly why we need to sleep every day, but research suggests that, during sleep, important connections between brain cells are reinforced, and unimportant connections are discarded. Essentially, sleep is a time for knowledge and memories to be committed to our brain’s long-term storage. It also gives our bodies an opportunity to repair muscles, and for waste chemicals to be cleared from the brain. In the long term, sleep deprivation has been linked to a higher risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Sleep Council suggests that adults aged between 18 and 65 should aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep per day, but it also notes that each individual will need a different amount. There’s no point forcing yourself to take nine hours if you only need seven, for instance. What’s really important is the quality of sleep that you get: it’s during the deep phases of sleep that we rest and recover the most. Waking up in the night will disrupt your sleep cycles – which each last around 90 minutes – and will leave you feel less than refreshed the next morning.

 

How much sleep are we getting?

A 2018 poll commissioned by Sainsbury’s found that the average British adult gets just 6 hours and 19 minutes of sleep per night – significantly less than the recommended seven-to-nine hours. Respondents blamed technology, a lack of exercise, and eating late at night as the main reasons for failing to get enough shut eye.

In a 2014 study, 45% of Americans said that poor or insufficient sleep affected their daily activities at least once in the past week. A further 20% said they did not wake up feeling refreshed on any of the past seven days, while the study also drew correlations between poor sleep quality and poor overall health, particularly among workers with lower incomes.

The 2019 Sleep in America poll found that individuals who reported excellent sleep health were three-and-a-half times more likely to report feeling well-rested compared to people with poor sleep health. Commenting on the findings, Helene Emsellem, MD, medical director of the Center [sic] for Sleep and Wake Disorders, said: “Many of my patients are overcommitted between work, home, and trying to exercise, and find it difficult to take the necessary steps to prioritise sleep and maintain a consistent sleep wake schedule.”

 

How poor sleep affects your work

You probably don’t need stacks of academic evidence to know that a poor night’s sleep will affect your performance at work the next day. The results of one sleep study – which found that 70% of sleep-deprived workers are unable to focus in meetings, 68% say they take longer to complete tasks, and 65% are unable to come up with original ideas – are likely to sound familiar to anyone who has suffered a bad night’s kip.

In fact, the RAND Corporation estimates that sleep deprivation costs the US economy $411 billion a year, and more than one million lost working days because of oversleeping or illness cause by a lack of rest.

In April 2019, researchers at the University of South Florida revealed that losing just 16 minutes of sleep in a single night could be the difference between having a good day at work, or a miserable one. A shorter, poorer-quality night’s sleep was linked with a higher prevalence of cognitive issues and higher stress levels. “Good sleepers may be better performers at work due to greater ability to stay focused an on-task with fewer errors and interpersonal conflicts,” said lead author Soomi Lee, PhD.

Numerous studies have shown links between poor sleep and lowered productivity. A 2010 study of more than 4,000 US workers found that those who suffered from insomnia or didn’t get enough sleep spent nearly three times as much of their day on time management than their soundly-sleeping colleagues.

But it’s not just the quality of your sleep that affects performance: irregular sleep schedules – often experienced by shift workers – have also been shown to have an adverse effect. A 2017 study found that, over the course of a week, the more irregular participants’ sleep schedules became, the more their cognitive abilities declines.

You might think that working remotely would be the solution to your sleep problems; after all, you can use that commuting time for a lie-in, right? Unfortunately, a UN ILO study contradicts that hunch: it found that 42% of home-based workers said they wake up frequency during the night – a classic symptom of insomnia – compared to only 29% of office-based workers. And if you’re a gig economy worker, or juggling multiple ‘side hustles’, the news is even worse: multiple-job holders have been found to sleep 45 minutes per night less on average on weeknights than their single-job peers, with that figure rising to 62 minutes less on weekends.

If you’re a manager or senior leader, it’s even more crucial that you get enough rest – because your poor sleep could have a surprisingly negative impact on your staff. When bosses sleep poorly, they are more likely to exhibit abusive behaviour the following day – which, naturally, dents engagement. Direct reports of leaders who model and encourage poor sleep habits have been found to get 25 fewer minutes of sleep per night on average than those who espouse great sleep routines. The same study, published in Harvard Business Review, also found that modelling of poor sleep habits led to a greater prevalence of unethical behaviour among their staff.

 

How to improve your sleep quality

There are lots of free tools out there to help you improve your sleep. A great place to start is the NHS’s One You website, which has comprehensive support for those who suffer from poor sleep. Try taking their sleep quiz to assess how you’re doing, and identify areas for improvement.

Making small changes to your daily habits can lead to positive improvements. Try making one or more of these changes and see how it affects your sleep quality:

  • Find out how much sleep you need be trialling different sleep lengths of between seven and nine hours. The average sleep cycle is 90 minutes, so try to go for a period of sleep that’s divisible by that length of time (eg seven-and-a-half hours’ sleep is five sleep cycles)
  • Once you’ve found a schedule that works for you, stick to it – even at weekends
  • Follow a bedtime routine, whether that involves a bath, some gentle stretching, reading, or deploying mindfulness techniques
  • Avoid digital devices during the hour before you switch off the light, and try to preserve your bedroom as a sanctuary for sleep
  • If you are tired during the day, stick to power naps of 20-30 minutes; longer naps of two to three hours can leave you feeling groggy, and may make it difficult for you to sleep at night
  • Regular exercise will make you more physically tired and should help you drift off
  • Watch what you eat and drink: avoid heavy meals before bed, and you might find that alcohol, although helpful in assisting you to drift off initially, actually disrupts your sleep
  • When you wake up, try to get going straight away instead of hitting that snooze button – no matter how tempting it might seem

 

This article was first published in September 2014. It was updated in May 2019 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.