Personal Growth

End the Sleep Stigma – Rest for Success

There’s a curious disconnect that sometimes shows up in the workplace regarding the relationship between foundational health practices like eating, exercising, and sleeping. We encounter it in colloquial sayings such as, “You snooze, you lose” or “You can sleep when you’re dead.” High performing leaders and employees don’t tend to brag about eating poorly or not exercising, but a curious culture of machismo can crop up when it comes to getting enough sleep.

The Sleep Stigma

In some contemporary workplaces, sleep is equated with laziness. However, the notion that too much sleep can land you in the poorhouse shows up in proverbs that are thousands of years old. There’s nothing new about the belief behind “You snooze, you lose,” but one can’t help but wonder if the writers of those proverbs might have tweaked them a bit if they knew then what we know now about the benefits of sleep, and the ferocious downsides of inadequate rest.  

How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?

According to the CDC, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. High performance athletes need more. NBA superstar Lebron James is famously committed to getting 12 hours of sleep per a 24-hour cycle whenever possible; eight to nine hours at night, plus three hours of napping. I don’t think even 12 hours of sleep per day is going to make me an NBA star, but there are plenty of other benefits that apply to the rest of us.

If we’re adequately rested, our brains work better. A rested brain will have better memory and task performance.  

How Lack of Sleep Affects Our Brains

A coworker once told me that their “worst note was more reliable than their best memory.” It’s hard to argue with that. Yet despite the fact that our memory is a fickle faculty, we depend on it a great deal. Adequate rest is one way we can support the formation of more reliable memory, as well as more dependable long-term memory. It’s while we are asleep that our brains decide what’s important to hold onto, and what can be let go. That process helps us create new pathways to navigate the day ahead. Better sleep contributes to more thorough memory processing and formation.

Sleep disruption can also affect the essential areas of focus, emotional reactivity, decision-making, risk-taking behaviour, and judgement. Nobody needs a foggy-brained, grumpy, hair-trigger coworker – especially when that person is responsible for making decisions that may impact the entire team.

Sleep deprivation makes some of our most critical deep emotional brain centres more reactive to emotional events.

Sleep deprivation makes some of our most critical deep emotional brain centres more reactive to emotional events. The amygdala relates to aggression and fear, and the striatum relates to reward and positive emotion – these regions are especially affected.

When we don’t get enough rest, those brain regions lose their connection to the prefrontal cortex, which is what regulates them. Matt Walker, Associate Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley and Principal Investigator at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, describes the amygdala as our emotional gas pedal and the prefrontal cortex as our emotional brake. When we’ve had a good night’s sleep, the connection between those deep emotional brain centres and our prefrontal cortex is refreshed. When we hit the emotional brakes, they work. When we’re sleep deprived, that’s less likely to be the case.

Sleep disruption also significantly impacts stress hormones, which in turn have an effect on general cognition. There’s a reason why we feel like our brains aren’t working well when we’re sleep deprived, and it’s not just because we’re “tired.” It’s as though we’re giving our brains low-grade fuel and expecting them to operate like high performance engines. This makes matters worse as we are then more vulnerable to taking our frustrations out on those around us.

We may normalize the symptoms of insufficient rest or buy into a workplace culture that valorizes it as a sign of mental strength, ambition, or dedication.

The clincher is that when we’re sleep deprived, our ability to recognize what is happening to us is also compromised. We may normalize the symptoms of insufficient rest or buy into a workplace culture that valorizes it as a sign of mental strength, ambition, or dedication.

To help us evaluate our own relationship with sleep, here are some signs that sleep problems might be impacting our mental health or ability to function well. As with any list of this kind, remember to be attentive to how many of these points apply to you. We’ve all experienced some of them, but an accumulation of symptoms can point to a growing sleep debt that no amount of caffeine can repay.

Symptoms of Poor Sleep

  • Needing an alarm to wake up in the morning
  • Trouble waking up or getting out of bed
  • Feeling tired throughout the day
  • Needing energy drinks, caffeine, or other stimulants to keep you awake
  • Having trouble concentrating, focusing, and thinking clearly
  • Having trouble with your memory
  • Becoming easily irritable, stressed, or overwhelmed
  • Feeling moody or emotionally reactive
  • Hitting a “wall” in the afternoon and becoming very tired
  • Feeling sleepy or falling asleep when sitting or doing a quiet activity
  • Making less healthy lifestyle choices
  • Relying on sedatives, alcohol, or sleep aids to get to sleep
  • Being more impatient or impulsive
  • Making more mistakes or not catching simple errors
  • Finding it hard to communicate and feel connected to others
  • Having no motivation to do things you normally enjoy
  • Feeling more anxious, restless, and unable to relax
  • Frequently waking up during the night
  • Frequently struggling to fall asleep
  • Racing, anxious thoughts when trying to sleep

Taking an honest look at our own relationship to sleep and rest is an important place to start but not a great place to stop. In some cases, our sleep may also be disrupted by medical conditions or circumstances that would benefit from professional support or intervention, in which case seeking that help would be an important step.

Taking an honest look at our own relationship to sleep and rest is an important place to start but not a great place to stop.

6 Ways to Improve Your Sleep

  1. Eliminate nighttime stimuli. In particular, stop looking at screens at least 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep.
  2. Create a sleep-friendly environment. As much as you are able, address issues having to do with eliminating or reducing light and noise, and make sure your sleep space is an optimal temperature.
  3. Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. What’s most important is that it’s similar each day, which helps our brains know that it’s time for rest and sleep.
  4. Adopt an energizing morning routine. For the record, this doesn’t necessarily mean bounding out of bed and hitting the gym. It can be as simple as taking a couple of minutes to deliberately stretch.
  5. Adopt a regular sleep routine. As with creating a bedtime ritual, this is about routine and rhythm. Be unapologetic about valuing rest and arranging your life to facilitate it. Your body, brain, and fellow human beings will be grateful you did.
  6. Use your bedroom only for sleep. While we don’t all have the luxury of separate spaces for work and sleep, doing what we can to keep those realms separate can go a long way to not waking up in the morning feeling like we’ve been working all night.

Maybe it’s time to lose the sleep stigma, evolve the idiom (and our lifestyle along with it) from “You snooze, you lose” to “No snooze, you lose.” Rest well, be well, and do well. You’ll be glad you did.

For more FREE resources, visit our resources page. 


Tim Plett

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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