In defense of night: we treat it with disdain yet spend 26.5 years asleep

Sleep problems
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Society is starting to pay attention to sleep. This is important because for something so critical to our survival and wellbeing, sleep has a chequered history with researchers.

“Scientists in the 1950s said that ‘sleep is of no medical importance,” says Guy Meadows, Clinical Director at Sleep to Perform. “That’s an actual quote. Now in the last 16 years, our understanding of sleep has developed immensely. But there is still lots to discover.”

Scientists have found many functions of sleep: to wash our brain of toxins, to maintain our immune system and to control appetite. You can be sure there are many more.

Despite these advancements, we have not accorded sleep the respect it deserves. People still boast of their ability to function on little sleep and they prioritise box sets over a good night’s rest.

In the five days after the clocks go forward and we lose an hour’s sleep, road traffic accidents rise by 20%.

But when you realise what poor sleep can do to you, watching another episode of The Wire doesn’t seem so trivial.

“18 hours of wakefulness is akin to being at the legal limit for alcohol. 24 hours wakefulness is like being double the legal limit,” says Guy. In the five days after the clocks go forward and we lose an hour’s sleep, Guy adds, road traffic accidents rise by 20%.

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Helpful tips for HR and managers to encourage staff to sleep better:

  • Don’t expect everyone to come into work having ‘finished’ their morning routine - if you force an ‘owl’ to get up and be at work at a certain time, they may not be ready to eat, and will want breakfast later than others
  • Flexible working allows people to work with rather than against their internal rhythm - larks can get in earlier when they’re at their best, owls can get in later
  • Encourage outdoor meetings and opening blinds so people get as much daylight as possible during the day
  • Discourage people from checking emails in the evening - this prevents a successful wind-down transition from day to night and subsequently to ‘sleeping mode’

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We are more likely to engage in risky behaviour when sleep-deprived. This is particularly dangerous because we’re often unaware of the level of this cognitive impairment or the fact we’re experiencing it at all.

Considering all these downsides, why is our attitude to sleep so blasé? Culture has a lot to answer for: our obsession with doing more with less, with celebrating long-hours, with cramming as much as possible in the day.

Change is happening though, and organisations are doing their bit. Forward-thinking firms focus on improving sleep quality - like reducing stress - because human performance has become a critical competitive advantage and well-rested people naturally perform better.

Through his Sleep to Perform programme, Guy is going round organisations helping people understand why sleep is so important, and what they can do to improve the duration and quality of their sleep.

The first thing is convincing them why taking action is important. The second is helping people work out what type of sleeper they are. There are three main categories: larks, hummingbirds and owls.

  • Larks go to bed early and are up early - the type of person to throw open the curtains, ready to face the day.
  • Owls go to bed later and normally take longer to wake up in the morning - they are better in the afternoon and evening
  • Hummingbirds are somewhat in the middle

What bird are you? It can be quite hard to know. Maybe you get up early to take the kids to school, or stay up late because you want to maximise your personal time after a long day at work. You don't know if your sleep pattern is a product of necessity or natural preference.

According to Guy, the best way to test if you’re getting enough sleep is simple: do you feel refreshed and able to cope with the day when you wake up?

“Here’s another test. When you’re on holiday, with no responsibilities and fewer stresses and lots of options for activities, what time would you naturally go to bed and wake up?”

Once you know what type of sleeper you are, you stop beating yourself up for not being able to go to bed early or for waking your partner up at the crack of dawn.

Guy says that anger at not being 'the right type of sleeper' creates a vicious cycle.

We've all had nights when we're lying there getting more and more angry at being awake. So it's important to go easy on yourself: research increasingly shows that every cell in our body is aligned to some degree with our natural circadian rhythm and sleep preference, so getting annoyed at yourself for struggling to get to sleep early is like getting annoyed that you've got brown hair.

Giving up resistance, therefore, is key. The second part of the puzzle is then about improving your quality of sleep. This is particularly important for those forced to adopt sleeping habits misaligned with their natural preference.

Guy's tips for getting a better night sleep:

  • Go for a 10 minute walk in the mid-morning - this is a loud signal to your body that it’s daytime and it should be active.
  • Use lamps in the evening - they concentrate the light downwards and allow you to go about your activities with less light concentrated in your eyes
  • Avoid the use of smartphones into the evening - they emit blue light (so-called because it’s the same part of the spectrum as blue sky) which suppresses the production of melatonin, the “sleepy hormone”
  • But in the winter, we go to work in the dark and come home in the dark - the blue light from screens is helpful in this case because it tells our body it’s time to be awake
  • If you’re an owl, set an alarm that reminds you to go to bed
  • Ritualise the 'wind down' experience: turn off screens, have a warm, milky drink, a hot bath, read a few pages of a book. Quantity is important, you want to give your body as many signals as possible that you are transitioning to 'night mode'

It's easy to forget how important sleep is and this is because we can function on very little sleep. But we're far from effective. It's time that we respect the fundamental nature of sleep in society and in reaching our full potential. 

Our bodies are not endless stores of energy and we pay a price when we don't recuperate.

As Guy tells me, “For every great party, you need a great clean up operation."

What that clean-up operation looks like depends on your personal preference. Some people need 12 hours from 8pm, while others rewake refreshed after five hours from midnight.

But there's no right answer. So get attuned to your own needs. Never be ashamed of them. And tell your employees the same thing.

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence, HRZone

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.

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