We intuitively know that sleep has a major impact on our engagement, productivity and performance at work. But it’s not always easy to get the requisite eight hours that adults need – as any new parent will tell you.
Having a baby was, quite literally, a wake-up call. I completely underestimated the impact of sleep deprivation on my own mental health. It took 18 long months for my son to start sleeping through the night. I immediately noticed the positive impact on my confidence and outlook on life – and my ability to think clearly.
But it’s not just new parents who could use a bit of shuteye. Even without the demands of a newborn, it’s certainly harder to get a good night’s sleep in our ‘always on’ digital working world. Especially in a hybrid or working from home model, where the boundaries between work and life are blurred.
For working parents, working from home has many upsides. But it’s also a trade-off – I love being able to pick up my son from daycare and enjoy the dinner, bath and bed routine with him. Then I’d head back to our home office to ‘just finish that task off’. Three hours later, blue light and a buzzing to-do list would compromise my ability to fall asleep in the small and crucial sleep window I had.
Who needs sleep?
High performers will work tirelessly to get results – but if we’re working more by sleeping less, that work is likely to suffer in quality. And there are long-term consequences for our physical and mental health too.
A World Health Organization (WHO) study found long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people a year, with people living in Southeast Asia amongst the most affected. The research, which covered data from 2000 to 2016, noted this trend was likely to worsen due to the coronavirus pandemic. WHO estimates that when countries went into national lockdown, the number of hours worked increased by about 10%.
Longer working hours directly trigger stress, and indirectly can lead to less sleep and exercise, and a less healthy diet. A mental health index survey of senior leaders in four countries, including Australia, found almost half had difficulty sleeping and 88% finish work feeling mentally or physically exhausted.
Missing a few nights sleep won’t kill you. But even mild sleep deprivation is shown to impact memory and metabolism. It can weaken your immune system, increase diabetes risk, and impair your judgement.
We need to rediscover the art of shutting down.
Healthier habits for hybrid workplaces
I appreciate the flexibility and zero-commute time that working from home provides. But there is no doubt it has led to longer working hours.
A global Harvard Business Review study found 89% of workers believe their workplace wellbeing declined during COVID-19, because work-life separation vanished while workloads and hours increased. In the mental health index, 79% of senior leaders reported working more hours than since the start of the pandemic.
So how can we avoid burnout?
Over the Christmas break, which couldn’t have come at a better time, I decided I couldn’t go into 2022 with the same habits. I needed to prioritise time for exercise, and also time for myself. I also knew my default post-work Netflix or social media scroll wasn’t really letting my brain unwind in the way I needed.
So I did two things. First, I recalibrated that trade-off. I decided it would be better to work an intensive 9-hour day than get my head back into work after my son went to bed. I also removed all the automatic notifications from my phone. Email, social media apps, anything that would demand my attention and take me away from being present. And that immediately created more space and time for me.
These simple things made me feel more in control. Here are five more habit resets to consider.
1. Create a buffer between work and sleep
You need a mental pause between shutting down your computer and heading to bed – ideally at least 30 minutes. Try charging your phone in another room to avoid checking emails ‘just in case’, as the blue light will interrupt your natural circadian rhythms.
2. Set a bedtime routine – like new parents do for their babies!
Our brains will recognise ‘wind-down’ patterns of behaviour, so give yours a regular sleep trigger – like reading for 10 minutes before turning off the light, a gentle yoga stretch, gratitude journaling, or meditation.
3. Write a to-do list before you switch off
If you remember an important task just before you head to bed, write it down. But don’t do it. A simple to-do list will clear your mind – and reduce the risk of stressful dreams.
4. Send healthy work signals
If you’re working flexible hours or with teams across time zones, check your expectations are appropriate. For example, sending an email out of regular office hours might help you tick off your to-do list – but consider adding an email footer such as ‘Please do not feel obligated to respond out of your normal working hours.’
5. Seek help
Sometimes sleep and wellbeing are not within your direct control. You might be transitioning back to work as a new parent, dealing with sleep apnoea or the side-effects of menopause, or going through a challenging time personally. It’s important to recognise you can’t always solve these issues on your own.
What can employers do?
Organisations play an important role in helping people set and manage their own boundaries. For example, Employee Assistance Programs or mental wellbeing benefits could normalise the idea of seeking regular mental health support as a preventative measure, not just in times of crisis. You can also support employee-led initiatives like groups for new working parents, to share advice and ideas on managing common challenges.
It’s also critical to prioritise time out for recovery or relaxation. A New Zealand Air study found that after just two to three days of vacation, participants averaged an hour more of good quality sleep. And when they returned home, they were still sleeping close to an hour more.
Given the level of post-traumatic stress from extended periods of lockdown and home-schooling, many people are running on empty. If you expect them to meet a continued drive for business results, they are more likely to burnout.
So perhaps it’s time to also challenge the idea of what it means to be a high achiever at work. Being dedicated and achieving results does not necessarily require real-time responses to every email. Because if that compromises your physical and mental health (and sleep), it’s simply not worth the trade-off.
For more strategies to help you set healthy work/life boundaries, read our paper The art of shutting down.