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Sleep deprivation in the workplace: how to spot it and what to do

It’s no secret that a lack of sleep can have a significant impact on quality of life. Sleep deprivation has been linked to everything from weight gain to skin breakouts and, alongside these undesirable physical manifestations of lack of sleep and general unwellness, can dramatically affect your ability to perform in the workplace. Research has shown that the demanding shift patterns of emergency medics, which sometimes causes irregular and broken sleep, is linked to decreased recall ability, and increased susceptibility to distractions towards the end of their shift, which in turn has been linked to errors in patient care.

Even in jobs with less immediate real-world consequences, sleep deprived workers can quickly become more of a liability than an asset. 21st century workplaces and lifestyles have evolved to place many new demands on people; increased mobile device usage, erratic shift patterns associated with zero-hour contracts, and the increasing interconnectedness of the modern business world requiring people to work across multiple differing time zones, have all played a part in the increasing number of workers falling victim to lack of sufficient sleep.

So, how do you tackle the problem of sleep deprivation in the workforce?

Firstly, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of clinical sleep deprivation, both in yourself and in your colleagues or team members.

Ayeisha Russell, a researcher with Ashridge Business School, lists the signs to watch out for as follows:

· Delayed reaction or response times

· Increased mistakes or omissions

· Increased irritability

· Increased drowsiness

· Demotivation

· Increased susceptibility to distractions

· Loss of focus

· Memory loss and inability to process new information

Once you have identified the presence of several of these symptoms either in your own life or persistently causing issues within your team, you can take steps to change the underlying causes. If you are looking to improve your own quality and quantity of sleep, try the following top five tips (or suggest them if you think a colleague would benefit):

Develop a sleep routine

If possible, go to bed and get up at the same time each day. This is sometimes less achievable for workers with irregular shift patterns, but one thing you can still try is maintaining a similar rising time on your days off, avoiding extreme lie-ins in favour of a more measured approach to a relaxing, quiet day. This will help get your body into a regular routine that you can build on; the further in advance your manager gives you your shifts, the sooner you can start developing and implementing your routine.

Reduce your screen time

Or, at the very least, your screen brightness. Ipads, mobile phones, and computers all pour out blue light which can harm your sleep schedule when you are exposed to it before bed. If you can’t ditch the screen before bed for whatever reason, why not download f.lux, which adjusts your device's screen brightness to mirror the light level around you at any given moment. This can make your screen a much warmer hue in the evenings, when you need it most, allowing you to adjust naturally to bedtime.

Declutter your mind before bed

Dr Tim Quinnell specialises in sleep disorders and advises people who can’t get to sleep because their brain is overloaded with thoughts and anxieties to perform a “mental download” prior to heading to bed. This involves writing down the thoughts whirling about in your head to purge them from your brain and make them easier to deal with later. This works best as part of a regular winding down period before bed of around 1 hour to 90 minutes, in which you shut off your computer and social media, and engage in relaxing activities. This could be reading, having a face-to-face chat, or taking a relaxing shower or bath, but should not include any form of screen use or social networking.

Be patient with your body

If you can’t fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of getting to bed, don’t stress about it. Laying in bed restlessly shifting can make it even more difficult to nod off because it causes tension in the mind and body, and catches you in a vicious cycle. It can also disrupt your partner’s own sleep. Instead, get up again and do a gentle activity like reading or listening to quiet, soft music; when you begin to feel drowsy again, go back to bed and try again to drift off to sleep.

Keep a sleep journal

This is a great way to identify your specific issues. Sleeplessness can occur for a wide range of reasons, and what might work for one person does not necessarily help another. Maintaining a detailed sleep journal can shine a light on issues you did not even realise you had, and thereby enable you to mend bad habits. Note down things such as

  • The number of hours you slept each day or night, both complete and partial

  • Any sleeping pills or other medication that may have affected your sleep

  • Any caffeine or alcohol imbibed

  • The number of hours you slept each day or night, both complete and partial

  • Any sleeping pills or other medication that may have affected your sleep

  • Any caffeine or alcohol imbibed

  • What you ate before bed and when it was eaten

  • How many times you got up in the night, what time, and what you did

The level of detail in the journal should help to shed light on valuable insights into your best and worst sleep-related habits. Dr Renata Riha, a sleep consultant, advocates keeping the diary for a fortnight to best evaluate your habits and see which ones need to be altered.

What are your sleep hacks? Leave us a comment or come and talk to us on Twitter!

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