The relationship between sleep and cognitive function (concentration, memory, learning, reasoning etc.) has been at the heart of much psychological research for over a century. Google Scholar alone lists more than 3 million studies investigating the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive function, dated as far back as the early 1800s.
Even without reading the research, most people are aware of the effects of sleep deprivation. Through their own personal experiences, most know how just one night of bad sleep can impact their ability to function the next day, not to mention their mood and behaviour. Put this into a work context, and the outcome isn’t pretty.
Some people believe that by working late, answering their emails or phone at all hours and saying ‘yes’ to every request (even at 1am), they will be seen as dedicated – increasing their chances of promotion. However, research has shown that ongoing sleep deprivation or frequent disturbed sleep is unsustainable and will result in ‘burnout’. Continue to not get enough sleep, and it could be the kiss of death for your career. Rather than promotion, sleep deprivation is more likely to result in:
1) Poor performance
The most obvious effect of sleep deprivation is on performance. Tiredness slows you down physically and mentally – reducing your output and productivity. It will also impair your ability to think clearly and rationally – affecting the quality of your work and the decisions you make. If you’re aiming for a leadership position, not being able to make good decisions will be the death of your leadership dreams. And if you’re currently in a leadership position, poor decision-making could result in being demoted or worse.
Being unable to remember or learn anything new, form logical arguments in meetings, present the most basic of data or perform the easiest of tasks will not get you promoted any time soon. Teammates or colleagues getting enough sleep will outperform you and get promoted faster, leaving you to eat their dust at the bottom of the corporate ladder. It’s worth bearing in mind by not getting enough sleep, you’re not only risking your promotion prospects in the short-to-medium term, but also the long-term. Your personal brand will be forever tarnished by poor performance – making it difficult for you to advance your career anywhere (not just with your current employer).
2) Undesirable mood, behaviour and personality changes
Anyone who has ever had a bad night’s sleep will know how much it can affect their mood and behaviour. Increased irritability, heightened sensitivity, frequent mood swings, anxiety and stress, grumpiness, aggressiveness, aloofness, inability to effectively communicate, perceived dull personality and apathy are all common side-effects of sleep deprivation. Not exactly the kind of behaviours employers want in their company, right? Demonstrate these types of behaviour and you’re more likely to get fired than promoted.
Not only this but tiredness can also negatively impact your motivation. While this of course affects your productivity, it will also affect your personal brand. If you’re in a leadership position or aiming for one – how will you inspire others, or be seen as capable of inspiring others, when you have the motivation (and charisma) of a sloth?
It’s worth noting that one of the key factors employers look for when promoting employees is emotional intelligence (EI). EI is an individual’s awareness of how their behaviour impacts others, as well as the ability to manage their emotions and behaviour for more harmonious and cohesive relationships. Don’t get enough sleep and you can say goodbye to your emotional intelligence – and your chances of promotion. And again, your personal brand will be damaged by the inability to work well with others – leaving your future career prospects few and far between.
3) Decreased health
There’s no doubt about it. Sleep deprivation will adversely affect your health. More and more research is showing there is a direct link between chronic sleep deprivation and major health issues. (Chronic defined as 3 nights a week of poor sleep for one month or longer.) Chronic sleep deprivation not only increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, depression and stress but also Alzheimer’s Disease.
With poor health, you might be forced to take time off work – negatively impacting your productivity, personal brand and promotion prospects. In worst-case scenario, it could actually stop your career dead in its tracks. Literally. If you’re lucky enough to survive the heart attack you just had, returning to work will be a serious challenge. Getting promoted after a heart attack will be even harder. You might be under strict doctor’s orders to take it easier than before. And your employer might be less willing to give you more responsibility in fear of giving you a second heart attack. Chances are your career advancement will come to a halt.
To advance your career, you need to be consistently performing at your best. Meeting, or more ideally surpassing, your KPIs, targets or employer expectations – with maximum efficiency – is critical for fast-track promotion. In order for you to be performing at your best, getting enough sleep is going to be crucial.
Whether you’re intentionally sacrificing sleep in favour of being on-call 24/7 for work, or unintentionally suffering from insomnia, for the sake of your career it’s imperative you get a grip on it – starting now.
So what can you do to ensure you get those 7 to 8 hours of blissful zzz’s every night?
1) Reduce your stress levels
Poor sleep is the number one sign of stress. If you want to sleep better, the first thing is to look at ways to bring your stress levels under control. Removing sources of stress could be one option. However, sometimes this isn’t possible (“What do you mean I can’t throw my boss out of the window?”). Looking for other ways to reduce your stress levels will be critical. For example, the best sleepers are often those who are the most comfortable delegating. By relinquishing control and giving your team a chance to grow, learning how to delegate could be a win-win.
Gentle exercise, yoga and meditation in the early evening have been shown to lower cortisol levels – resulting in better sleep. Intensive exercise is also good for reducing stress – but it can increase cortisol levels so might be better conducted earlier in the day rather than later. Actually, research has shown any form of exercise is great for a good night’s sleep. Other stress management techniques can be found here.
And if you’re really struggling to get your stress under control, seeking the help of a professional therapist or life coach or career coach can help.
2) Brain Dump
Many people can’t sleep because they seemingly can’t switch their brains off. They are physically tired but continuous thinking stops them from falling asleep. One exercise that can help is to literally dump all of the thoughts going on in your mind on a piece of paper before you go to sleep. Make notes of all the things you have to do or any ideas you have, or simply write down all of the thoughts that might be bothering you. Get it onto the piece of paper and out of your mind.
3) Throw it in the trash
If you still can’t sleep because of over-thinking, another exercise you can do is to imagine putting all of the thoughts going around your head in a box and closing down the lid. Then you simply take that box, crumple it up and throw it in the trash!
4) No screens one to two hours before bed
Research has shown that looking at phones, laptops, TVs – anything with a screen – stimulates brain activity. Not exactly what you want when you’re trying to get some shut-eye. The “glow” from the screen also impairs the production of melatonin and can reduce your ability to sleep even further. For better sleep, put all of your electronic devices away one to two hours before bed and don’t look at them again until morning.
5) No caffeine after 1pm
Caffeine can stay in our systems for up to 7 hours. So if you’re drinking it at 5pm or 6pm – it could be midnight or 1am before you start to get sleepy. Have your last caffeine fix (including tea, hot chocolate and energy drinks) at lunch time and notice how much more easily you fall asleep in the evening.
6) Dim the lights
The unnatural light we use in our homes in the evenings tricks our bodies into thinking it’s still daytime – meaning our cortisol levels might not come down as they should. Dimming the lights, using small lamps and setting your electrical devices to “night shift” can help reduce this effect significantly, aiding better sleep.
7) Read a book
Some people find reading before bed can help them “switch off” from the day’s events. Others have also found that if they can’t sleep within 15 minutes of being in bed, getting up and reading in another room for 10 – 30 minutes can help calm the mind down. Alternatively, adult colouring books have also been shown to help lower stress before bed and induce a good night’s sleep.
8) Recharge your batteries
Did you know we actually need energy to sleep? This is why some people who are really tired still find it hard to sleep. Our parents would probably say we were “overtired”. To keep your batteries recharged it’s important to find time for rest and relaxation, as well as support your body with the right nutrients that will allow it to store energy. Read here for more details.
9) Eating a balanced, lower sugar diet
Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, pasta etc.) can lead to highs and lows in blood sugar and energy levels. This can cause further cravings for sugary foods, energy drinks and caffeine fixes as a quick pick me up. The issue is that the sugar highs and lows as well as caffeine impact our cortisol levels and natural sleep/wake cycles – leaving the body confused and out of sync. Eating complex carbohydrates (vegetables, quinoa, wholegrain oats etc) will help maintain steady blood sugar levels, allowing for a more natural sleep wake / cycle.
10) Eat a light evening meal
Research has shown that people who eat a light meal at 7pm (or 3 hours before bed) sleep better than those who eat a big meal at 8pm or later. Choosing foods that contain an amino-acid called Tryptophan (which is believed to indirectly help the production of melatonin) might also be beneficial for a good night’s sleep. Foods high in Tryptophan are turkey, chicken, eggs and fish, as well as carbohydrate sources such as oats and brown rice. And if you get hungry towards bedtime, eating a small 30gm snack of carbohydrates has been shown to help curb the hunger and induce sleep at the same time!
11) Change jobs or companies
If you’re working for a company (or in an industry) that expects you to work all hours, and essentially compromise your health and sanity in the process, it might be time to consider a change. In my opinion, no amount of money or recognition is worth your health or your sanity. Not to mention the precious time with loved ones you’re missing out on. Nobody ever got to their death bed and wished they had spent more time working. If negotiating your hours (or even just expressing your desire to work less hours) is not an option – perhaps looking for a new job is the way forward.
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About the Author
Zeta Yarwood is recognised as a leading Career Coach and NLP Life Coach in Dubai, helping individuals across the world to achieve success in all areas of their lives. With a degree in Psychology and over 10 years’ experience in coaching, management and recruitment – working for multinational companies and award-winning recruitment firms – Zeta is an expert in unlocking human potential. Passionate about helping people discover their strengths, talents and motivation, Zeta lives to inspire others to dream big and create the life and career they really want.