As a society we push ourselves to work long hours, viewing this as a necessary evil in the pursuit of success. Technology ensures we are constantly connected to our work, even when we are not physically at work. Popular off-duty activities include fast moving sports and video games. Even if we take up something calming like yoga, we often rush from yoga class to the supermarket, then home to deal with domestic responsibilities, negating the calmness brought about by the yoga. With leisure time shrinking and the length of time we work, both per week and over our lifetime, lengthening is it any wonder that many of us feel that we don’t get enough sleep?
It is National Sleep Day on 15 March so what better time to investigate the impact of lack of sleep on our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
Long work hours result in not only tiredness but also a lack of attentiveness which in certain circumstances can have really dangerous outcomes. Driving whilst tired is just as dangerous as driving whilst drunk; our reactions are impaired and it is not unheard of for fatal accidents to result from people actually falling asleep at the wheel. Those super long days driving between meetings are really not good for your health.
Lack of sleep will make you distracted. Concentration will be more difficult and you will possibly flit about from task to task, unable to quite finish anything. The plethora of half done tasks will then start to annoy and upset you. As your judgement and ability to plan is also impaired by lack of sleep, this may lead to poor decision making. You may also fail to realise that the time has come to stop doing a task because you are not achieving anything useful.
When we sleep we are not just laid in bed recharging ourselves like a battery. Sleep is the time when our brain sorts out all the stuff we have done and learned that day and puts it into the right order to make sense of things. If you don’t get enough sleep, that won’t happen and you will find you are struggling to learn. In today’s fast paced world where continued learning is a critical skill in the workplace, lack of sleep can therefore cause real problems.
Both long and short term memory are affected by lack of sleep. We might notice that we have to try harder to take on board new information and keep it available in long term memory. The impact on short term memory is more immediately obvious; we can’t recall things that happened two minutes ago. This is the point where you go up and down stairs fourteen times before you finally manage to remember that you went up there to get your glasses.
Long term lack of sleep leads to health issues including diabetes, obesity and even early mortality.
Efficiency and productivity are reduced, so an all-nighter will usually make you less efficient and productive rather than more so. Brain imaging studies have shown that your brain must work harder when you are sleep deprived, making it less efficient and as a result you are also less efficient. Taking the time to have the right amount of sleep will actually mean you get more done rather than less.
Because your brain is tired it will rely on the well-worn pathways created by habits. This is fine if the habit is useful, effective and appropriate. It’s not so good if the habit is unhealthy.
Lack of sleep affects our relationships as well. We have less empathy when we are sleep deprived and can’t read facial expressions as effectively. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts can arise, particularly if both parties are tired. This can have an impact on relationships as well. For example, new parents who are being woken throughout the night by their infant may find this places a strain on the relationship.
The good news is that just one or two good nights sleep can reverse most of the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation. The occasional late night/early morning can be coped with but for long term health as well as optimum efficiency and productivity, a regular sleep pattern is recommended. The type of sleep is more important than the number of hours you are physically laid in bed as well. There are four sleep stages and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is the most important. Research suggests that we need about two hours of REM sleep per night in order to feel alert the next day. Whether you are a morning or evening person makes a difference as well. If possible, early birds should retire early and get up early whilst night owls might sleep from 2am – 10am and feel wonderful on waking.