7 Ways Sleep Affects Wellness in the Workplace

We’ve all experienced it: the crushing weight of trying to drag yourself through a workday when you just haven’t had enough sleep the night before.

It’s not just unpleasant, it makes everything harder—and erodes the quality, accuracy, and creativity of your work (not to mention impacting your ability to collaborate with colleagues).

And if you manage people, sleep issues can invisibly undermine all the good things you do: someone who’s suffering from sleep problems will be far less receptive to even the best management and culture in the world. If your people haven’t slept well, it will be hard to even get their attention much less their full engagement.

Few things in work are more important—but few are so rarely discussed. We’d like to help change that. Your workday demands energy that only sleep can provide. 

Consider the many demands your workday makes:

  • You have to maintain focus, solve problems, make decisions, and recall important information.
  • You have to collaborate with your colleagues and empathize with their concerns.
  • You need to be ‘on’ for client calls or internal meetings.
  • And you need the physical stamina to make it through the day. 

For all these challenges, sleep is brain food. And it’s not just the quantity that counts—it’s the quality too. And it has a profound impact on your neurological performance. 

Said simply: the better you sleep, the better (and happier) you work.

You notice this most on days when you’re flat-out exhausted. But the effect is always there. 

You may not notice the difference between six hours of sleep and eight—but your brain and your body most certainly do. 

Sleep affects your workday. Every day. 

If you’re suffering from poor sleep, you’re not alone. More than one-third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, and the Center for Disease Control has designated lack of quality sleep as an official public health problem

The first step in solving a problem is to understand it. So let’s step through seven of the less obvious ways that sleep affects your working day. 

Cognitive ability and task focus

Cognition is your ability to reason, plan, learn, and solve problems. Whenever you come up against a new or challenging situation at work, your cognitive skills come into play. 

The most basic cognitive skill is attention: the ability to focus on the task at hand. But when you haven’t slept enough, your mind loses focus, gets hazy and wanders off topic. 

To colleagues, that can look like you’re not engaged or just don’t care—even if that’s the opposite of how you really feel.

Memory and recall

Think about all the stuff you know about the work you do. Everything from working processes and practical techniques to names of contacts is stored away within your brain.

If you can’t recall these vital facts, you can’t use them. And without quality sleep, your recall suffers

Problem-solving and decision-making

Lack of sleep puts your rational brain out of whack. You’re more likely to make poor decisions, which makes it harder to plan projects, define goals, and evaluate risks. You’ll also find it tough to get to grips with complex problems.

As work gets more and more complex—and more interdependent—your ability to navigate all this depends on a healthy sleep life. 

Creativity

REM sleep is when your brain is most active and your dreams are most vivid. This phase is essential for building creativity—in fact, people even solve creative problems in their sleep

So make sure you get enough REM sleep, or you won’t be throwing out any great ideas in a brainstorm, or delivering standout creative work. 

Mood

Without sleep you’re more susceptible to mood swings and even depressive episodes. These could potentially spiral into more serious mental wellness issues. 

At work, that could translate into grouching at a coworker without good reason, or flying into a rage over a minor issue. When you’ve had a good night’s sleep, you’re far more likely to respond to all sorts of situations with more balance and equanimity—and to give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. 

Reading emotions and empathy

Sleep deprivation affects your ability to recognize what other people are feeling, and can also erode your emotional empathy

Emotional literacy is a key workplace skill. If you’re not in tune with the emotions of those around you, that could make it harder to lead a meeting, manage a team, negotiate a deal, or conduct an interview. And any highly sensitive interactions—like performance reviews—could more easily tilt the wrong way.

Physical effects

Poor sleep has a real impact on your body—particularly if it continues for several nights in a row. You start getting sleepy during waking hours, attention drifts, and reaction time suffers. 

If you work in an office, feeling drowsy might make you slump down in your seat. Over time, poor posture can lead to headaches, back pain, and disrupted digestion. 

In other settings, since daytime fatigue affects your ability to react to hazards at a moment’s notice, it could be a matter of life or death. If you didn’t sleep well, don’t get behind the wheel or operate heavy machinery. 

How to sleep better

We’ve looked at a whole range of problems that can result from poor sleep. But on the flip side, they all represent opportunities to improve your physical and mental wellness—and your work—through better sleep. 

  • Above all, respect your sleep. It’s more than just downtime. It’s a vital part of your wellness regime, alongside diet and exercise. 
  • Creating a better sleep environment—a supportive bed, and a cool, dark room—will definitely help. But the most important step is to adopt better sleep habits, like a regular bedtime and choosing activities that slow you down before bed and let your mind let go. 
  • Calm Sleep Stories, meditations, music, and soundscapes can help, too—and we’re big believers in the short, restorative nap (working from home makes that a lot easier).

Let’s put sleep on the management agenda

Given how important it is to everyone’s happiness and well-being at work, it’s surprising how little sleep is discussed at work.

We can all be part of the solution, with open conversations, recognition of the challenges and wellness programs that take an active role in improving everyone’s sleep.

So instead of being an invisible inhibitor of workplace happiness and engagement, it can be a major force for good.

Explore more about the impact of sleep on employee well-being in our infographic, here.

The Calm Team

The Calm Team

Help employees stress less, sleep better, and build more resilience with Calm for Business.

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