A bad night's sleep can affect your cognitive performance, even if you feel fine

Guy Meadows
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The better we perform during the day, the better we sleep at night – and vice versa (Source: Getty)

Brexit has brought with it a period of significant instability. Since the vote to leave, many have feared their job security while watching the pound weaken on global markets. High levels of uncertainty have been fuelling distress in the workplace.

In my most recent Sleep To Perform corporate workshops, I’ve heard Brexit fears being cited by employees from the financial, consultancy and legal sectors as the major culprit behind their rising levels of stress and sleeplessness.

In times of elevated pressure people need to perform at their very best otherwise regrettable decisions are made. When stressed and sleep deprived, poor decision-making tends to follow.

Scientific research suggests that sleeping six hours per night for 14 nights, compared to regularly getting eight hours per night, results in the equivalent reduction in mental and emotional performance as two full nights without sleep. In fact, the more sleep deprived an individual becomes, the less sleepy they often feel, despite displaying worsening cognitive impairments. This could explain the increase in risk-taking behaviour also linked to sleep deprivation and its reported involvement in many of the world’s major disasters including Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez and the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for many of the higher order executive functions such as focused attention, creative problem-solving and memory recall, is incredibly vulnerable to sleep deprivation. This explains why we feel more stressed after a night of poor sleep because we get pushed into the amygdala, the primitive threat-detecting part of our brain. The net result is that we tend to view ourselves, others and the world around us in a more negative light. In the current climate, we could definitely do without this negativity.

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An intimate relationship exists between stress and sleep. The better we perform during the day, the better we sleep at night and vice versa. While we can’t remove the high levels of uncertainty and distress experienced in the workplace, we can learn to change the way we relate to it, allowing us to continue performing at our best.

Make time for sleep

You know you’re getting the right amount of sleep if you wake up feeling refreshed. If this is not the case, aim to go to bed 30 minutes earlier and/or later to increase your potential for recovery.

Set a go-to-bed alarm

Watching TV, surfing the net, or continuing to work long into the night may feel like its helping, but it’s actually depriving you of valuable sleeping time. Set a go-to-bed alarm and stick to it.

Avoid blue light

The blue light emitted from most modern smartphones and tablets disturbs your sleep by activating the release of the waking hormone cortisol. Download a blue light filter, or better still, don’t use your device at least 40 minutes before you go to bed.

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Rest is best

If you can’t sleep, you can still benefit from simply choosing to stay in bed and rest. If your mind is racing, focus your attention on your breath, returning to it each time you become distracted with another thought.

Welcome your worries

Giving stressful thoughts shorthand labels such as “Brexit”, “work” or “health” helps to create a sense of perspective between you and your thinking mind. By labelling them, you will notice them arrive, and can return to what you were doing.

Wake yourself with light

Exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning stops the release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and releases cortisol, energising you for the day ahead.

Power nap

If you’re feeling tired and lacking focus after lunch, don’t be afraid to have a short power nap. Scientific research has shown that a 10 minute nap can boost alertness, energy levels and creativity.

Dr Guy Meadows is a Sleep Physiologist and Clinical Director of The Sleep School which runs the business sleep and performance programme "Sleep to Perform" – an executive sleep-focused course devised to boost corporate performance through improving the quality and duration of sleep. The programme is uniquely tailored to the needs of individual organisations and can be delivered through a mix of presentations, digital resources and one-to-one sessions. Clients include Lloyds, PWC, Unilever and Shire and others.

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