We all know the one: the office champion insomniac. The super-charged workaholic who can function at 100% after being up all night. Don't bother telling him about the meagre three hours of sleep you managed last night due to your newborn baby. He only had two. And they were broken! Do you have difficulty dropping off? That's nothing on super insomniac; he closed his eyes at 2am and woke for the day at 2.15am to start sending emails!
Boasting about how much we can do on how little sleep is nothing new. But along with increasing stress, tighter deadlines and extended hours, competitive sleep deprivation has now become a worrying and established feature of the 21st century workplace.
Indeed, recent figures from a survey carried out by the ITV Tonight programme make for grim reading: over a third of Britons are not getting the recommended eight hours of sleep per night and this is having a marked impact on our health, our relationships and our productivity. As well as an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and type two diabetes, neuroscientists now believe that chronic sleep deprivation impacts on brain function to such an extent that we might as well be drunk. This is less than ideal when we need to be making crucial decisions, interacting with colleagues and hitting deadlines. Something has to give.
As I discussed last week, mindfulness, the practice of focusing our attention on the here and now, can have untold benefits for the mental well-being of people at work and, as a consequence, the productivity of our businesses and organisations. But can the trend also help us in our quest for a better night's sleep?
The effects of sleep deprivation
We've all been there: exhausted and craving some shut-eye but however hard we try, we can't drift off. This in turn leads to greater frustration and anxiety, and even less chance of a restful night's sleep. The more regularly that this occurs, the greater the sleep debt, which in turn can contributes to a host of health problems. It is recommended that adults get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night; however, over a third of us are not achieving this due to working late, excessive consumption of caffeine and alcohol and the strains of bringing up young children. It is now recognised that accumulated sleep debt leads to mental and physical exhaustion and lessened cognitive ability. After just two weeks of getting less than six hours' sleep, for example, alertness and performance are reduced by the same amount as if there had been no sleep at all for 24 hours. And experts now believe that those of us who think we can catch up by lying in at the weekend are mistaken: a few extra hours of sleep once a week is not sufficient to cancel out the debt.
In the workplace, sleep-deprived workers not only feel terrible, they can find it difficult to concentrate, have trouble remembering key facts or statistics and be likelier to make mistakes or omissions.
The key to understanding insomnia and sleep deprivation is to accept that we can't make ourselves go to sleep, we can only enable sleep to happen. In order to enter this natural state of restorative rest, we have to be fully relaxed and able to fully release the stresses and worries of the day from our minds. This is where mindfulness can prove highly effective. Rather than reaching for sleeping pills or a large glass of red to help us drift off, mindfulness relaxation techniques can be a useful and simple way to overhaul our sleeping habits. Put simply, when we practise mindfulness, we are focusing completely on the present, focusing on neither the past nor the future and paying careful attention to our thoughts and feelings at that moment. Here are some techniques that are easy to include in your night-time routine:
1. Give yourself adequate time for sleep
Work back nine hours from when you need to get up in the morning and make this your bedtime. Ensure you have done everything you need to do for the next day well before this and leave laptops and smartphones downstairs (it is well known that too much screen time before bed inhibits the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin). Your bedroom should be dark, comfortable and free from distractions.
2. Leave your worries and plans outside the bedroom
Once you enter your bedroom, focus your attention on things that make you content and calm. Tune in to your breathing and its sensations. Enjoy the feeling of knowing you are going to enjoy a restful night's sleep.
3. Simple sleep meditation
As you are lying down, close your eyes and focus entirely on your breathing. Feel it flowing in and out of your body and allow yourself to sink down into the mattress. Imagine your breath reaching out to the other side of the world and take it back in again. Do this for at least a minute so that your body can gently drift off.
4. Relax each part of your body
Gently relax each part of your body, beginning with your mouth and eyes and moving down to your arms, legs, fingers and toes. Feel the tension dissipate as you inhale and exhale deeply. Relish the calm and peace of the moment and allow your mind to fall asleep.
5. Bottle those feelings
Enjoy the feeling of being refreshed and alert when you have had a really good night's sleep. Breathe in the feeling and bottle it so that your mental and physical self will crave more of it over the coming nights. Take your feelings of relaxation into work, where you will arrive well-prepared to face the challenges of the day!