Sleep is increasingly a workplace wellbeing issue. Good sleep boosts our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, which means wecan’t achieve optimal health without taking care of our sleep first. Plus, the impacts of not sleeping well flow into how we function (or don’t function!) in our work day.

When we sleep well:

  • we are more likely to show up at work energised and motivated to get things done
  • we’ll be more tolerant and understanding with colleagues, and probably keep a sense of humour and perspective when work is hectic or things don’t go as planned
  • our brains will function at their best, helping us perform work tasks to a high standard, as well as ensuring we can prioritise and delegate where necessary
  • we’re likely to stay healthy and to take fewer sick days

It’s also important to know that poor quality sleep or not enough sleep can amplify mental illness as well as contribute to it. As an example – if I am tired, I am more likely to worry about things going wrong. Then, the more I worry, the less likely I am to sleep well. This vicious cycle of worry and insomnia can then become worse over time.  Similarly, for depression – feeling fatigued over time can affect my mood, leading to me feeling down, with less energy to do the things that will improve my low mood, such as exercise, doing enjoyable activities, and socialising. Again, this can become a damaging cycle.

What’s happening inside our bodies and minds when we sleep that explains these impacts? Let’s look at what we know:

Physical benefits

  1. While we sleep, infection-fightingsubstances like cytokines are produced, which help our body fight illness. Conversely, not enough sleep means we cannot produce cytokines fast enough to do so and are more likely to get sick.
  2. Regulation of our digestive system– we need 7-8 hours of sleep to be able to produce hormones like leptin and ghrelin that control our feeling of hunger – we are then more likely to eat sensibly rather than overeat.
  3. Good sleep regulates and repairs our cardiovascular system so our hearts can remain healthy. Lack of sleep can also link to higher chances or strokes, heart attacks and artery calcification.

Mental and emotional benefits

  1. Good sleep helps us to stay calm and therefore to regulate our moods well, whereas not enough can make us reactive and quick tempered. Over time, poor sleep can contribute to anxiety and depression.
  2. Various aspects of brain function are affected by sleep, including cognition, concentration, productivity and performance. In particular, good sleep has been found to improve problem-solving skills and enhance memory so we can focus well on daily tasks.
  3. Sleep improves our ability to respond well to other people, we will notice important social cues and be more able to process emotional information; thus, we’re more likely to be tolerant and understanding.

Given its importance then, what can employers do to support their employees to get good sleep?

  1. Provide information and education about the importance of sleeping well, as well as practical tips for how to improve sleep – this can be via wellbeing hubs, posters in common work areas and providing speaker seminars or other access to specialists.
  2. Ensure all people leaders and managers provide clear messaging about reasonable hours of work and expectations of work. Leaders need to “walk the talk” also by making sure they are not emailing employees at times when they would expect to be sleeping or winding down from work. This is particularly important when employees have low autonomy over their work hours or are working shifts.
  3. Promote and support genuine flexible working and value productivity over time at work – particularly where employees are working across time zones or are on shift rotas.

For more ideas have  a listen to this conversation about sleep myths and good habits with New Zealand sleep expert Dr Tony Fernando on Radio New Zealand: