by Julia Price BHLSc - Managing Director, Dale Carnegie Training
During February and March 2011, I was introduced to sleep deprivation like never before. Two major earthquakes in Christchurch and a prolonged series of aftershocks, literally shock us Cantabrians awake at any given time, day or night. In desperate need of sleep but on high alert, my body and brain decided to lie awake waiting for the next shake, when all I wanted was a full night’s sleep.
Working for emergency services, I still had to go to work. After a month of only 4-5 hours of broken sleep per night I was going crazy Even mothering new born triplets didn’t seem as hard as this. Ironically, at the same time as this was happening, I was studying at University (and working full time) and one of the semester’s papers was called “Sleep and Circadian Rhythms”. All the effects of sleep deprivation I was reading about, I was experiencing first hand. I was my own case study!
Sleep is a basic biological need that all humans have. When we are sleep deprived, our physical and psychological health is compromised. The first signs are fatigue, irritability, and loss of concentration. Then comes disorientation, difficulty co-ordinating movement, slurring our words, increased appetite, visual misperceptions...,…the list goes on. If this sounds like you, during a night out on the town drinking, then you are 100% correct. The effects of excess alcohol are exactly the same as sleep deprivation. Would you go to work drunk? No, but you would probably go to work sleep deprived. How productive would you be? More importantly how safe would you be if you were driving or operating heavy machinery?
“But I always go to bed late and my body is used to it,” I hear you say. What you’ve actually done is got used to functioning at low levels of alertness. All humans need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. A good night’s sleep helps with memory consolidation and brain clean up; kind of like rebooting an electronic device. Around 1-3 % of the population known as ‘the sleepless elite’ can survive on just a few hours sleep per night. Winston Churchill was one who had between 3.5-5 hours per night but he was a prolific power napper, and was retrospectively diagnosed with depression and bi-polar disorder. Not to diminish his great legacy, his leadership style has been described as belligerent. He was combative in his personal relationships and many people found him sarcastic and overbearing. He was notorious for monologues that could last for up to four hours or longer.
Apart from the acute effects of sleep deprivation, the chronic effects are deleterious. During sleep, our immune system regenerates vital organs including our brain. Without it, the immune system can’t defend us as well against sickness or injury. Go without sleep for long enough and you will start to hallucinate and eventually die.
But not all sleep is equal. Brainwave tracing (EEG) shows we have different stages of sleep including Non-REM and REM sleep. Many of the things we do; the things we eat and drink; the time we are exposed to light; and the thoughts and emotions we have, all affect these stages of sleep, and therefore our quality of our sleep. The dichotomy is sleep keeps us healthy and being healthy helps us sleep. The good news is we have the capacity to create the habits and an environment that facilitates a restful night’s sleep.
As leaders in business, our health is crucial to organisational success. We owe it to ourselves and our team members to be at the top of our game and that includes getting enough good quality sleep.