How to make sure sleep benefits your performance at work to the full

Carrie Fisher was a much-loved actor.

Her sudden death, at the age of 60, robbed us of someone who had a wide-range of other talents beyond acting:

  • as an ambassador for mental health;
  • as a script-doctor in Hollywood; and
  • as a writer of books.

But it’s for her performance as Princess Leia in Star Wars – aged only 19 – that she will be best remembered.

She also said this:

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

Advice about how to perform at your best – a necessary ingredient being bravery. Performance is important in the workplace and, in this article, we’ll look at one particular factor that can affect your level of functioning at work.

Edition 646 of the HBR Ideacast (podcast) featured American writer, Marc Effron. It focused on his book 8 Steps to High Performance: Focus on what you can change (Ignore the rest) – in particular, on how sleep affects your performance at work.

According to Effron’s definition, a high performer is someone who performs – in terms of behaviours and results compared to their peers – at or above the 75th percentile, year-in, year-out. In other words, you achieve performance at a level which means you are “better” than 3 out of 4 of your peers, over time.

Performance is always relative. The example of two workers faced by a marauding tiger springs to mind.

One worker is seen changing into running shoes and the other says: “But you’ll never outrun a tiger”. The reply: “Maybe not, but I only need to outrun you!”

One of the factors Effron considers is the science behind sleep and high performance.

There is plenty of research on the effects of exercise and nutrition on performance at work but none of it conclusive.

On the other hand, sleep – or lack of it – clearly affects performance. You have to look at it in terms of both quality and quantity of sleep.

Quantity of sleep

The National Sleep Council in the US says that the ideal quantity per night is between 6 and 10 hours.

Effron reckons between 6 and 7 hours is the ideal.

It’s tempting for high performers to think that one hour less of sleep might be better used, for example, in working. However, each of us has a (different) minimum amount of sleep we need and we are unlikely to manage to “train” our bodies to get by on less. We are hard-wired into the amount of sleep we need and our ideal waking and sleeping times of day.

What happens to our brains when we don’t get enough sleep?

You might think it means we won’t perform as cleverly or sharply as we would with a full night’s sleep. However, science indicates that it’s not the higher cognitive functions which suffer but, instead, our more fundamental skills that deteriorate – for example –

  • forgetting where you left the car keys;
  • forgetting folks’ names; and
  • being at greater risk of getting into an accident.

The quality of your sleep can also affect your mood and your performance at work.

Quality of sleep

Quality matters more than quantity.

In an ideal world, you should go to bed

  • in a completely darkened room
  • with no electronic device usage immediately beforehand
  • with no animals sharing the room with you
  • room temperature at about 65 degrees (i.e. a cool room)

For most of us, with many of these factors far from optimal, it’s about noting how adjustments might give us higher quality sleep. Apparently, the biggest two are having a dark room and a cold room, which may well be within your control to achieve.

5 hours of high quality sleep may well be more refreshing than 10 hours of poor quality sleep.

Workplace first aid techniques if you’ve had a poor night’s sleep.

  • Tell trusted work colleagues the situation – not as an excuse for being crabby and difficult – but so they can keep an eye on you and help if they think you are too rushed or crotchety. (If you have a new baby at home, your request to colleagues may have to cover months into the future rather than just today…).
  • The research shows that a 10-minute nap (and the 10-minute timing is important – i.e. not 5 minutes and not 15 minutes) can make up for as much as one hour of lost sleep.
  • Also, as we know, caffeine can give you a boost. It “speeds up” your brain and your body. So cups of tea or coffee can help you fake the effects of a good night’s sleep. It’s important not to get into a vicious circle whereby caffeine interferes with the quality and quantity of your nightly rest. Most of us underestimate the time that caffeine remains effective in our bodies. Research suggests that we should avoid caffeine for 6 hours before bedtime because it is likely to have a negative effect on quality and quantity of sleep. You may be able to fall asleep easily after a cup of coffee close to lights out time; however, the quality of your sleep is likely to be suffering.

If you are chronically sleep-deprived, say, as a parent with a young family, caffeine will probably have an important role to play in managing the sleep element of your high-performance-at-work strategy. But it’s only one of eight strands to high performance, according to Marc Effron, so you may be able to compensate in other ways too.

How we can help

We hope this article goes some way towards helping you understand how to make sure sleep benefits your performance at work to the full.

We are here to help if you have performance issues at work that are attracting negative attention from your employer – or if you are that employer, needing advice on how best to manage the performance of your employees. May the force be with you.

And we can help too – all initial enquiries are free of charge and without obligation.

You can contact us on 01343 544077 or send us a Free Online Enquiry.

Links you might like

These articles on this website also deal with sleep-related topics:

Image credit: Photo by mnm.all on Unsplash

Note: This article was first posted on the Moray Employment Law website in October 2018.

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