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The importance of sleep

Pen John Gallaher Glasses 5 min read

The Hidden Costs of Insufficient Sleep.

How much sleep do you get? Enough? Too much? Probably not the latter if you believe the more recently published studies on insufficient sleep. Most of us believe we do not get enough sleep. President Bill Clinton once stated “every important mistake I’ve made in my life I made when I was tired". Anyone who has lost sleep over worries, and that means most of us, will understand that when lying awake in the middle of the night with problems flooding through the mind, it is pretty easy to start to catastrophise and good sleep becomes impossible. 

There is also a better understanding of the harmful effects of individual sleep loss in employees on the bottom line of the organisation. Sleep deprived brains struggle to make accurate judgements - this includes making a self - assessment that they are doing just fine after only a few hours’ sleep! 

Why is this? One of the last parts of our brains to develop was an area called the neocortex and it is this area that is responsible for executive functioning and higher order mental skills, including reasoning and decision making.  It’s the area responsible for “getting things done” and is a particularly important area for leadership skills. It is also an area that is particularly vulnerable to sleep loss. There is now good research which shows that the effect on performance of prolonged wakefulness is similar to that of elevated blood alcohol concentrations.

Sleep is also important in helping us to solve problems. We all know that eureka moment when we go to sleep with an unsolved issue and wake the next morning with a solution we had not identified. For many years it was thought that the brain went into slow motion during sleep so as to allow it to recover from the day’s activities. Most recent research indicates that the brain is more active and performs many important integrative tasks while the rest of the body slumbers. During this time the brain tries to make sense of issues presented to it during the day.

When sleep deprived you are also more likely to make bad decisions and overreact to events. The old advice that you should sleep on a difficult email rather than send it late at night has a basis in science which has established that sleep improves decision making, and this is especially important for those decisions that involve an emotional response. So sleep on it is good advice.

So what should organisations do? Training on the importance of sleep is a good place to start. This would best take place in a broader approach to wellbeing that incorporates other topics such as nutrition and exercise, as it is more likely to be successful when delivered in this context. Company policies and commitment should support the approach especially in our 24/7 world. These might cover limits on times to send and receive emails and work time limits, and in some industries the provision of sleep rooms.

And to look after your own health

  • Leave work at work as far as possible, and if you cannot, then schedule some time to do it and then leave it.
  • Go for a walk or get some exercise - but not too late at night time.
  • Eat well but not too late, drink in moderation if at all.
  • Try to avoid medications to help you sleep.
  • Shut down all gadgets an hour before sleep at least
  • Do something that makes you feel relaxed such as reading or listening to music
  • Have a comfortable bed in a dark room which you use for sleeping, not work.
  • Keep the room a little cooler, use layers to stay warm.
  • Encourage good thoughts before retiring for the night and talk about your problems with someone you trust and who understands.
  • Keep a notebook next to the bed and if things in your life are busy summarise them and write them in the notebook before turning off the light - it does help to get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper. The notebook is also useful to capture the eureka moments on waking.

All of these tips will hopefully help you to switch off and when you are switched on… you’ll make better decisions. Trust me on that one!

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John Gallaher

Dr John Gallagher is a Medical doctor specialising in Occupational Medicine. He graduated in 1985 at University College Cork (UCC), attained his Membership of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine in 1992 and Fellowship in 1997. He completed a Masters degree at the Institute of Occupational Health, University of Birmingham in 1991 and was the winner of the inaugural John Darwall Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland since 2005. He is the Occupational Physician and Head of the Occupational Health Department for HSE South, based at Cork University Hospital. He is a Clinical Senior Lecturer in Occupational Medicine at UCC and the academic director of the Diploma in Safety, Health & Welfare at Work at UCC. He is also an examiner, trainer and past Dean of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. John is Managing Director of Cognate Health Ltd.