With this year’s World Sleep Day happening 19 March, there’s perhaps no better time to discuss why we should all care about fostering healthy sleep habits – and what leaders can do. Dr Moira Junge, a psychologist, sleep disorder expert and Sleep Health Foundation (SHF) board member, explains how we should be thinking about sleep and why those ‘better sleep’ listicles don’t always help.

 

How often have you heard a lack of sleep worn as a badge of honour? How often do we subtly frame it as a sign of a hard work ethic or ‘kicking goals’? The reality is that sleep is one of the three pillars of health alongside diet and exercise. Not only is chronic sleep deprivation associated with increased risks of accidents, but sleep is linked to serious health risks such as cardiovascular health, brain health and metabolism and weight. If we’re only talking about diet or exercise, those discussions aren’t complete.

Sleep quality can also have big impacts on work quality. A lack of sleep can impair alertness, decision-making and overall workplace safety. A Deloitte report, commissioned by the SHF in 2017, estimated that Australians’ inadequate sleep causes productivity losses equalling $17.9 billion, or $2,418 per person with inadequate sleep. In other words, both employers and individual employees have serious incentives to care about sleep.

Now, with the workforce going through major changes in how, when and where we work, it’s important to think about how work habits might be impacting sleep habits. Here’s what you need to know.

Healthy sleep habits are important, but solutions aren’t always one-size-fits-all

When we talk about healthy sleep habits, the term ‘sleep hygiene’ comes up a lot. It refers to habits and practices that are conducive to sleeping well on a regular basis, similar to other hygiene habits like brushing your teeth. This includes habits like trying to keep a routine sleep schedule, reducing screen time, minimising alcohol and caffeine intake, and cutting back on stimulating entertainment right before bed.

Sleep hygiene can be a useful way to talk about sleep for the average person. However, other people may have more serious issues with sleep, and it’s not always accurate to frame those issues as a lack of sleep ‘hygiene.’ The internet has no shortage of listicles, checklists and schedules that outline ‘correct’ sleep habits and make better sleep sound simple. But for those with sleep-specific anxiety, consuming this sort of advice might be counterproductive. 

Not only can it ramp up anxiety, but it may not be the right advice for your circumstances. For instance, when experiencing sleep-specific anxiety, it’s critical to wait until you’re sleepy rather than sitting in bed trying to sleep. But if you’re reading online content that tells you to keep the same bedtime each night, you might be getting the wrong message.

When you’ve tried lots of different ways to get better sleep and are still struggling, potential solutions will depend on your individual situation. It may be that your worry or concern about not sleeping is not being addressed. In the first instance, it can be worthwhile to discuss the issue with your GP. But there are also plenty of online resources, including free resources like From This Way Up, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy principles to help manage insomnia. 

Some people may do well with self-help resources, while others may need more help from a professional. It’s about finding what works for you, and it depends upon the severity of the issues.

Amid remote work and dispersed teams, it’s vital to make space for sleep

Some lucky people are able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. But, for most of us, the on-ramp to sleep is a little longer than you might realise. The best sleep preparation requires truly unwinding and reducing stimulation at least one hour before you try to sleep, meaning you need to minimise adrenaline, cortisol and other indications of stress.

This could include the tv series or social interactions that leave you feeling wired. And it definitely includes work. A good sign that you’re not making enough time for sleep is if you’re working right up into bedtime. It’s incredibly hard to switch off in only five to ten minutes and expect to get good sleep. This is a little like planning to work from your office but only setting aside the hours when you’re physically in the office, instead of giving yourself time to get ready and travel to the office.

It can be an even bigger challenge when you’re working from home, which has made it harder to define that pre-bedtime ‘on-ramp’ and to preserve boundaries between work and rest. Some are working from their bedrooms, while others have lost the demarcation that used to come with commuting or getting on the train. Increasingly, workers are collaborating with teams or co-workers in different countries and time-zones, which might make it even harder to feel like you can switch off at a precise time.

Setting boundaries is crucial, but it’s just as crucial for those boundaries to allow an appropriate amount of time for unwinding. We have to allow time for a normal circadian rhythm, including the role of melatonin, which is secreted in darkness. If we still have a screen in our eyes, our circadian rhythm can be delayed and melatonin won’t rise at the right time.

Leaders have an opportunity to strengthen conversations about health and wellness

Sleep is an essential part of health, but it hasn’t always been a big part of public dialogue in the same ways as nutrition or exercise. Workplace leaders can help change this.

First, much like leaders check in about KPIs, they should be checking in about their employee’s health, including sleep. This is especially true now with many people working remotely. Many feel they have to prove themselves and work extra hours. International teams, spread across different time zones, have also meant an increase in late night or early morning phone calls. Here, I’d recommend keeping these interactions to 5:30 am at the earliest and 9:00 pm at the latest – anything else can be too disruptive. 

Of course, flexible working means that some employees may feel comfortable working outside that window of time. This is perfectly fine, as long as there’s some level of routine. Evidence suggests that shift workers with lots of variation in their schedules can be at higher risk of problems, so the exact hours are less important than the consistency of those hours. The key is to make sure flexibility doesn’t become chaos.

Second, awareness and sympathy can make a big difference, especially if you don’t experience any sleep-related problems yourself. There are many issues that can keep people awake at night, whether it’s chronic pain, chronic stress or a racing mind. The effects can be debilitating, and a lot of people feel ashamed and lonely when they aren’t sleeping well. Just like with any health issue, sympathy and support from leaders can go a long way.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of leading by example and starting conversations. It can make a huge difference to see leaders prioritising and respecting sleep, and an even bigger difference if you open a discussion about it. Also, it can be important for leaders to check in with their employees about snoring, sleepiness and the importance of getting screened for sleep apnoea. 

It’s great to leverage events like World Sleep Day, but it can happen any time of year. Start a ‘pyjama day’ to raise awareness or hold a webinar with an expert who can tailor advice for your workplace. Really, it’s just about starting conversations and reiterating the importance of sleep.

Sleep is crucial for your health, your co-workers’ health and the success of your business. Promoting sleep awareness is the right thing to do – who knows, maybe it will even help you rest a little easier!

Learn more about World Sleep Day and get resources for promoting sleep health. Or, for more tips on wellness, check out The Leader’s Guide to Employee Wellbeing.