The sleep revolution: Waking up to the importance of proper rest

Dr Guy Meadows, sleep physiologist, on why sleep and stress are more connected than you think.

Despite business leaders such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer famously claiming that their minimalist approach to sleep was a key factor in their success, there is a new sleep revolution sweeping across the corporate world, turning the maxim that the less you sleep the better, on its head.

In the last few years we have experienced this first hand, with an increasing demand for our corporate sleep programme from HRs needing a solution for exhausted and run-down teams. Whether a breaking point has finally arrived thanks to smartphone technology and its ‘always-on’ hangover, or whether it reflects a commitment to science-informed wellness programmes, businesses finally have an appetite for a well-rested workforce… and it can’t have come soon enough.

A survey of three FTSE 100 companies reported that 64% of employees regularly wake up feeling either ‘not very refreshed’ or ‘not at all refreshed’ and 23% reported that poor sleep and tiredness impacted their ability to do their job either ‘very much so’ or ‘a lot’. And with a national survey of UK working adults reporting that 46% regularly slept only 5-6 hours a night instead of the recommended 7-8 hours, it is clear to see why.

For years, sleep has often been labelled as ‘the most powerful performance enhancer known to humankind’ but it is not until now, after decades of scientific research, that the weight of this claim can be fully understood. And corporates are firmly picking up the baton.

One such discovery is the fact that our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for our advanced cognitive and emotional performance, is most vulnerable to sleep deprivation. The prefrontal cortex, or frontal lobe, is the brain’s business powerhouse. In charge of abstract thinking and thought analysis, it is the area of the brain responsible for delivering our most advanced cognitive work – not to mention setting its groundwork through focus and concentration. Research shows that if you regularly experience poor sleep you are three times as likely to lack concentration during the working day and struggle to ‘get things done’.

The vulnerability of our prefrontal cortex to lack of sleep also explains why we feel more stressed after a night of poor sleep. Neuroimaging studies reveal that a sleep-deprived brain spends more time in the amygdala, the primitive threat detecting part of our brain. The net result is that we tend to view ourselves, others and the world around us in a more negative light, something which results in us overreacting to emotional events and experiencing more negative emotions.

For savvy HRs, the critical connection between sleep and daytime performance, as well as how well we handle stress, is clear. Employees who make their sleep a priority will perform better at work and it is something which can be improved relatively simply with the right know-how and departmental analysis. HRs looking to make a big difference to their company’s bottom line could do worse than investing in some team shut-eye – it could prove to be the business’ biggest asset.