Sleep stress - could your job be responsible?

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By Oliviah Rix-Taylor

on Thursday 18 October 2018

asleep in work

Many of us worry that insomnia and terrible sleep habits are adversely affecting our work, yet the link is rarely made in reverse.

The workplace is where we spend the majority of our lives and where we are expected to function at full potential. Yet it could be a major contributor to poor sleep and be having some disastrous consequences for our overall health.

Not only could work be affecting your quality and quantity of sleep, but over time, that sleep deprivation will begin to affect your quality of work. The vicious cycle then begins as you rack up an ever increasing sleep debt, whilst your work standards slip further down the mud-slicked banks of career progression.

Should employers be responsible for their staff’s sleep?

As employees, we are constantly reminded that sleep is for the weak. Notoriously, in the dog eat dog world of career building, those who go home to bed are those that miss out on promotion.

In spite of this, there has been overwhelming evidence in the last twenty years to suggest that lack of sleep is linked with poor health, weight gain, Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, decreased brain function and premature death.

The frightening statistics surrounding increased crash rates with people working night shifts and teenagers attending school early in the morning, are but a few that can back up the casual relationship between lack of sleep and increased chances of death.

But is your boss to blame?

There are some job sectors in which working well beyond the standard nine to five is indoctrinated into the culture of the job. Nurses and resident junior doctors are obvious examples, along with shift workers and those in the military, but included in this miserable sleep defunct sector where beds are for quitters, are;  graduates, bankers, business consultants and project orientated firms. In fact, this article by the National Sleep Foundation outlines the sleep disturbances in various careers from fire lieutenants to barista’s.

These industries expect their staff to work well into the night, often accumulating two days’ worth of labour in one shift in order to meet tight deadlines and client demands.  But the affect this could be having on our sleep and so overall health could be devastating.

The physical symptoms of sleep stress

The NHS warn that regularly getting poor quality sleep in not enough quantities can put you at serious medical risk by increasing your likelihood of becoming obese, having a heart attack, developing diabetes and overall shortening your life expectancy.

The psychological symtoms of sleep deprivation 

Not only is our physical health affected but our psychological wellbeing slowly degrades after experiencing a bout of insufficient sleep. Our brains do not perform well after sleep deprivation. We become more emotionally volatile, are unable to focus and memory becomes impaired.  All this is comes from Mathew Walkers recent book – why we sleep: the new science of sleep and dreaming.

As a species that spends about a third of our lives asleep, why we sleep must be of great importance, otherwise why would we do it so often and for so long? The human brain is currently the most sophisticated thing in the known universe, so it should really come as no surprise that it needs to shut down each night and recalibrate its systems – but is it really shutting down?

New research outlined in Walkers book suggests that when we bed down at night and close our eyes our brains are in fact consolidating all the information we learnt in the day into meaningful memories. Some researchers believe this information processing is all done via dreaming, in which the unconscious brain plays through experiences and images, placing them into a meaningful order to create useful associations that can later be pulled from an ever growing sophisticated data bank of memories.  This could also explain why lack of sleep, and thus lack of dreaming, is linked with increased rates of Alzheimer’s in which memory functions are majorly impaired.

This also can also explain why our creativity is affected after a poor night’s sleep.  If you work in an industry that requires you to creatively problem solve, or to harness your imagination, then lack of sleep could be seriously affecting your ability to perform well for that job.

When we sleep, our brains pass through two main phases; non REM sleep in which the brain’s neurons fire in sync, and REM sleep; where there is notable non-synchronicity and different areas of the brain are allowed to be active independent of each other. This is important for creativity and problem solving as the brain is able to make seemingly random connections and assemble them into strange yet meaningful storylines that we experience as dreams.

There are many famous examples of people waking from sleep and suddenly able to solve a problem they have been stuck on for a while, including Nobel Prize winner Otto Loewi who developed his theory of neurotransmitters in his sleep. Not only is your work place robbing you of health boosting sleep each night, but ironically, it is robbing itself of productive, high performing employees.

Lack of sleep can cause emotional damage

In addition, sleep and dreaming could also be a therapeutic exercise for us to engage with our experiences during the day whilst being safely divorced from the emotions attached to them. This allows us the opportunity each night to process what we experience without reliving harmful stress responses.

This dissolving of emotion from experience results in useful information that we can then analyse and store. A study by Mathew Walker found there was a marked decrease in an emotional response to images when there was a period of sleep in between seeing the images. When compared to a second group who did not sleep in between viewing the images, there was no decrease in emotional response. Alongside emotional response cards, sophisticated MRI images were taken of the participants brains which support the changes in emotional reactions. 

Workplace attitude to emloyees sleep

With such a devastating impact on our ability to regulate our emotions, process experiences, creatively problem solve and fight off a plethora of health issues – is it time for sleep to be included in the perks of a job posting?

Google; a company that is quick to catch on and implement new ideas, have famously incorporated sleeping pods at their headquarters in California, whilst sports teams and coaches are beginning to detail good sleep hygiene in their athletes training programs.

Walker argues that we are slowly starting to move away from our post-industrial way of life and recognise that sleep is vital to our development and success. Without sleep our careers will stagnant at best, and at worst catastrophically fail (as in the case of junior doctors who can make deadly mistakes).

Currently, the onus is on us to get adequate sleep, pushing social and family commitments to one side in order to hit the sack. Then it’s back to work to give one hundred and ten percent in pursuit of higher pay brackets and impressive resumes. Can this really be fair though? Especially when work demands such a large portion of our lives already. Should employers still expect their staff to give up aspects of their lives beyond their working hours in order to stay healthy and fit for purpose?

There are of course workers’ rights and in the UK the Health and Safety Executive govern working environments with an iron fist. Work related stress is already being recognised and accepted as one of the leading causes for depression and anxiety – and lack of sleep is known to affect our mental health.

Currently, in the UK, 32% of us admit that we sleep poorly yet almost half (49%) have never taken any action to remedy poor sleep. This speaks volumes for our attitude and understanding towards sleep health and calls for better campaigns in getting us, and employers alike, to recognise the need for adequate sleep. The Great British Bedtime Report has some startling statistics surrounding our night time habits that is sparking debate into the annoyingly nascent field of sleep health.

In industry, it is going to take a leap of faith, a feat of forward thinking, and confidence in positive changes to promote better sleep health for employees. With lack of sleep potentially costing the UK GDP £40bn in lost productivity, it’s time employers began investing in sleep instead of stigmatising it. 

A change in industries attitude to sleep 

The Sleep Revolution could be here sooner than you think. Companies like Nike offer flexible working hours to suit their staffs’ circadian rhythms whilst Proctor and Gamble have installed lighting systems that influence sleep hormones, allowing employees to wind down towards the later end of the day. Businesses are also starting to send automated responses to client’s emails after working hours in an effort to allow their employees a chance to switch off before bedtime. Such changes are expected to have an impact on workers wellbeing and attitude whilst destigmatising the need for sleep in the workplace.

It’s an area that requires an organisational overhaul in order to re-establish the need for sleep to promote a productive workplace, and one that needs to stop shaming and blaming employees for wanting a good night’s rest – because ultimately, these are the people who will live longer, work harder and innovate the workplace.