Trading sleep for productivity can cause more harm than you think

Do you find yourself working long hours and struggling to switch off, even when you're tucked up in bed, trying to settle down? You're not alone. It turns out, more than a third of UK workers struggle to get a good night's sleep.

More often than not, difficulty winding down after a stressful day is the main reason for sleeplessness, but other reasons include job worries, early starts and even pulling a late-night shift.

It's clear to see that there are many ways that work can disturb your sleeping pattern and, in fact, it's cyclical. Research on the impact of working hours on sleep and mental health concluded that long weekly working hours are associated with reduced sleep time and increased sleep disturbance. It means that if you haven't been performing well because you're tired you may put in extra hours to bring yourself up to speed, but that results in a poor night's sleep. Then the cycle repeats.

Whilst office (and remote working) culture allows us to reach for our fourth coffee of the day and often normalises tiredness among workers, be warned: these practices are actually causing you more harm than good. 

How sleep deprivation affects your health

The short-term gains from dodging sleep so that you can work for longer are quickly stripped. Sleep deprivation carries some potentially detrimental consequences towards your mood, your ability to concentrate, and more. For instance, did you know that people who are drunk often outperform those who lack sleep?

Additionally, according to research by the University of Rochester, your brain produces toxic proteins while you're awake – they're a byproduct of neural activity. Sleep enables your brain to remove them. But if you don't get enough sleep, the toxins overwhelm your brain and impair your ability to think. Therefore, sleep deprivation will dramatically slow your brain's cognitive function, reducing your ability to process information, problem solve, and think creatively.

But that's not all.

Whilst sleep deprivation can leave you irritable and exhausted, it can trigger the onset of many serious psychological conditions, including stress, depression, and anxiety. It will also cause your body to overproduce cortisol (the stress hormone), which can manifest physically. It breaks down skin collagen, compromises your body's ability to metabolise carbs, increases the production of ghrelin (the "hunger hormone"), and reduces the levels of leptin, the hormone that helps you feel satiated.

In short, sleep deprivation could cause you to look haggard, appear bloated, and feel hungry and unsatisfied. That's no way to live.

How to prevent sleep deprivation

Adults tend to need between seven and nine hours of quality sleep each night to feel rested. Improving sleep quality and quantity is ultimately the way to prevent the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. Here are a few ways to clean up your sleep hygiene and gain the right quantity and quality of sleep to benefit your health and performance at work.

Put a hard stop on work after hours

It's important to maintain an even work-life balance for many reasons and a restful night's sleep is up there on the list. When you work into the evening, you stretch yourself, forcing your mind into a continued state of alertness, when really you should be winding down and preparing for sleep.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, closure is a big theme among those offering tips for a healthy work-life balance, so be strict with your working hours. Leave work at the desk and know when to walk away. If you're working from home, try to confine it to a certain area of the house and close the door on it when the day's done.

Avoid caffeine after lunch

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that blocks the chemicals that induce sleep and increases your body's production of adrenaline. It has a six-hour half-life, which means it takes 24 hours to exit your system. If you're propping yourself up at work on a mid-afternoon coffee, it will still be around 50% strength near bedtime, making it more difficult to fall asleep.

Even if you feel like you need an energy boost during your mid-afternoon slump, it's much better to steer clear. But don't fret, you can still have your morning latte – research says the most beneficial time to consume coffee is between 10 AM and noon, as it's often most needed and used by the body in that window.

Establish a sleep schedule

A consistent sleep routine is a key way to feel more rested day to day. Your body's internal clock tells your brain when to wake up and wind down, and regulating this will improve your mood and sleep quality.

If you don't stabilise your sleep schedule, your brain isn't sure when to complete the sleep process – it can't prepare to be awake or relax. Establish consistent sleeping habits (even on the weekends) to keep the grogginess at bay and enable a productive work week.

Avoid blue light at night

Find yourself on your phone or watching Netflix right before bed? You may want to think twice. The blue light emitted from screens tricks your body into thinking it's daytime. It can increase alertness and delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin. It can even disrupt your brain's natural sleep-wake cycles, which are essential for optimal health and cognitive function. 

As a result, if you use devices with screens before bed it may take you longer to fall asleep, you may have less REM sleep, and you may even wake up feeling more tired. Putting yourself on a digital curfew before bed will help to mitigate sleep disturbance and help you to feel refreshed for the day ahead.

Take breaks

It may seem counterintuitive, but taking breaks throughout your workday can actually increase productivity. Humans aren't wired to concentrate for eight hours on end. If you don't take breaks, you may experience decision fatigue and struggle to focus. You may not complete your tasks for the day and then find yourself stressing about the overhanging tasks (or continuing to work on them) into the night, causing disturbed sleep.

Regular breaks can help you to make better decisions, spark creativity, help you retain information, and aid focus on big-picture goals. Take short breaks every hour or so and a well-earned lunch break for at least 30 minutes to stay focused and productive throughout the day.

Be realistic

It can be tricky to put a hard stop on a workday, especially if you didn't get everything done from your to-do list and are swimming in tasks. However, setting unrealistic expectations on what you can achieve in a day is likely to make you more stressed and increase the temptation to work over your set hours.

At the end of each day, perform a self-analysis. Consider four things: what you worked on, what you didn't, what went wrong, and how these issues can be resolved. By reflecting on your performance, you may be able to spot trends, identify problems and solutions, and establish a work schedule that is manageable and sustainable.

If burnout at your job is inescapable, you may need to find a new one. Start off your job search strong by getting a free review of your CV.

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