Key Takeaways | Better Sleep for a Thriving Workforce

5 minutes read
By Sinakho Dlamini, HR Content Specialist, Top Employers Institute

How Sleep impacts Performance at Work with Dr Els van der Helm

The impact of a good night's sleep is often underestimated, especially in our busy modern world with demanding schedules at work and outside of it. Beyond the apparent restorative benefits, quality sleep plays a pivotal role in mental, emotional, and physical health. Sleep has usually been thought of as a private individual task that employees deal with on their own, but as the lens of wellbeing is shifting towards encompassing several areas of wellbeing – like financial wellbeing, mental wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing, and more – sleep is just beginning to make its mark for many organisations looking to be proactive in their wellbeing efforts.  

In this article, we will identify the key takeaways from one of our recent webinars on the subject to better understand not only the science behind it but also some of the practical strategies to improve sleep hygiene to be better able to handle the pressures of life and work with a focus on the personal and more considerable organisational impact.   

In our penultimate webinar of 2023, we hosted a webinar with David Plink, Top Employers Institute's CEO, and Dr Els van der Helm, sleep neuroscientist, adjunct professor at IE Business School in Madrid, lecturer at St. Gallen Business School and IMD Business School, all about sleep. The session was broken into three segments: 

  1. Are you getting enough sleep, 
  2. Why sleep matters, 
  3. Become a better version of yourself with sleep.  

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 Are You Getting Enough Sleep 

The average amount of sleep required for an adult is, on average, eight hours a night, which is why that number is often heard in the media. Of course, that number is only an average and not a one-size-fits-all for everyone, but most people need around seven to nine hours of sleep. The amount of sleep a person needs is almost entirely determined by a person's genetics.  

Dr Els explained some factors that show that a person is getting enough sleep. Two of her examples included:  

  • You can sit through anything boring without getting sleepy.  
  • You can wake up without an alarm.  

While sleep is essential, many people still do not value the impact of sleep. This is especially true for high achievers who often believe that they are too busy to sleep and that if they spend too much time sleeping, they will be unable to perform and succeed at work, which is often the opposite of what happens.  

Read More: Unlocking the Equity of Neurodiversity 

 Why Sleep Matters 

Sleep is the foundation of an individual's performance and wellbeing. While several other factors affect performance and wellbeing, like nutrition, physical activity, stress management and more, sleep is the one factor that underlies them all, which is why it is important to address sleep before the other factors. You can see this work in the relationship between food and sleep, where if you sleep an hour less than usual, you will see that, on average, people eat over 140 calories more the next day.  

Why does sleep have such a noticeable effect on so many other things that happen to a person? That is down to some of the functions that are reliant on sleep. Some of those functions include: 

  • Sleep cleans the brain: During the day, our neurons use up energy, and in that process, they produce toxic byproducts; when we are in deep sleep, these toxins are flushed out into our lymphatic system. 
  • Sleep keeps the brain balanced: The amygdala, which is the threat detection system of the brain, is connected to the prefrontal cortex, which can inhibit the amygdala from responding in an unbalanced manner. However, this only happens when you get enough sleep because, with sleep, the prefrontal cortex is more reliant, which makes the amygdala less balanced.  

Read More: How Saint-Gobain, Capgemini and bioMérieux are Engaging Employees from a Human-Centric Perspective 

 Become a Better Version of Yourself with Sleep 

Sleep quality is as, if not even more, important than sleep quantity. Dr Els introduced sleep quality by explaining the sleep cycles from the initial stages of light sleep through the essential realms of deep sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. The absence of prolonged disturbances marks optimal sleep quality. It is a state where the sleep architecture aligns harmoniously, facilitating the release of growth hormones, cellular repair, and the consolidation of memories. 

To improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, Dr Els introduced some tips to help. These tips include: 

  • Not snoozing your alarm clock when waking up in the morning. Set your alarm clock as late as possible, and when you can, it is good to use a sunlight alarm.  
  • Being proactive in managing your stress levels as this leads to poor quality sleep over time. It can be challenging to manage stress levels, but relaxing meditations can help relax the brain; even a minute can be helpful.  
  • Better understanding your natural body clock will allow you to understand better when the peak hours for you are to sleep.  

While the discussion on sleep has primarily focused on the individual response to sleep, Dr Els did delve into what happens for organisations with poor sleep. These include:  

  • High stress and burnout levels,  
  • Lack of energy and productivity,  
  • Uninspiring leadership, 
  • And lack of creativity and innovation.  

What is the return on investment for organisations that get their employees better sleep?  

  • 21% see increased performance. 
  • 30% see a reduction in stress levels.  
  • 46% see a decrease in sleep debt among their employees.  

Read More: How Organisations Improve Employee Engagement with Emotionally Engaged Leaders 

Final Thoughts 

The impact and importance of sleep cannot be underestimated, and the implications of sleep are not only for the individual but also for the collective and employers. As we acknowledge the impact of rest, organisations that recognise and champion the importance of sleep are safeguarding their employees' wellbeing and nurturing a foundation for sustained innovation, collaboration, and overall excellence.  

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Key Takeaways | Better Sleep for a Thriving Workforce

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