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Improving performance and productivity is on everyone’s lips. We talk about the need to reclaim focus, to increase efficiency and manage distractions better.

What’s not being talked about is the bigger performance killer that is hidden in plain sight.

What is it?

Lack of sleep.

When running my brain fitness workshops I always ask the participants what they need to function to their best when it comes to mental performance. The usual list of suspects is drawn up and listed in order of priority.

Without fail in both leadership groups and public workshops the number one issue causing the biggest headache to workplace performance is lack of sleep.

Sleep is a physiological and psychological necessity.

If you’ve had a bad night or your sleep was too short, overcoming that daytime sluggish feeling, lack of focus and lack of joie de vivre is difficult no matter how many extra cups of coffee you consume in an attempt to wake up your brain.

The World Association of Sleep Medicine has revealed that sleep problems affect around 45% of the world’s population and with the myriad of sleep disorders maybe that’s no surprise.

But not everyone who is sleep-deprived has a sleep disorder. How much of the problem is the result of failing to address the importance of sleep? Too often its value has been demoted to the bottom of the laundry list of things-to-do because work, life and general busyness is allowed to take precedence.

While speaking to getting ‘miked up’ prior to speaking at a conference recently, I had one ear open listening to what the speaker on stage was saying. She was speaking about (you guessed it) productivity and shared how as a CEO she was usually awake every night between 1 and 3 am with her head buzzing with all the mental work left outstanding from the previous day.

Though horrified by her confession, I was not surprised and judging by the number of nods around the room, she was clearly not alone.

Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves of a couple of things.

We are human, not machines.

Treating ourselves as if we can simply be wound up like a clockwork toy to operate from dawn to dusk in the expectation of being able to deliver a consistently good mental performance without sufficient downtime and sleep is a delusion.

We are not Winston Churchill

Famous for only getting four hours of sleep at night while running a country; Winston was also renown for his afternoon naps!

While there are a few amongst us who can thrive on relatively few hours of sleep this is rare. Most mere mortals require between 7-8 hours. There is individual variation and only you know how much is enough.

How much is enough? If you can wake up without the aid of an alarm clock at the required time feeling refreshed and invigorated – you’ve had enough sleep.

Too little sleep is the highway to hell.

Busy lives, busy people. Having to take time out (we spend around 1/3 of our lives asleep) to sleep can be seen as a nuisance, getting in the way of our ability to get more stuff done.

Another delusion.

You cannot train yourself to do with less sleep. There are some pretty weird and wacky programs currently advertised suggesting you can train yourself to manage on greatly reduced sleep. My strong recommendation is don’t go there!

It’s well recognised how chronic sleep deprivation diminishes mental performance while increasing your risk of Type Two diabetes, obesity (yes lack of sleep makes us fat), heart disease, anxiety, depression, other mental health and neurodegenerative conditions.

What price are you prepared to pay to sleep less?

Sleep is vital for brain health and function

During sleep your brain is extremely busy consolidating long-term memory, deepening the understanding of what we have learned, regulating emotion and taking out the brain’s trash. Restorative sleep is achieved when we complete 4-6 sleep cycles at night, each cycle lasting approximately 90 minutes. Broken or interrupted sleep interferes with these processes so we wake up tired and sets us up to be less than our stellar best for the forthcoming working day.

Poor sleep is really bad for business

Problems concentrating, being slower at processing information, less able to form new memories or recall previous information, poorer decisions, increased mistakes, reduced spatial awareness, and a certain level of grumpiness, irritability or emotional liability. Mmm, coming to work tired isn’t a great idea if you’re trying to create a good impression about your ability to perform well, especially when under pressure.

Plus it’s not a good look if you’re constantly trying to stifle a yawn or horror of horrors falling asleep during a meeting – even if it was mind-numbingly dull.

As leaders, managers and business owners, the duty of care extends to placing a high value for everyone to get enough sleep.

What do you as an individual do to ensure you and your family get enough sleep?

How can you place a higher value on getting sufficient sleep that others will also share?

What is your workplace doing to minimise the impact of sleep deprivation on performance? What could be done better?

Sure there will always be those times when we have to go the extra distance, pulling a really late night, deliberately curtailing sleep because of an urgent or challenging problem.

Hopefully, those times will be rare. If you’re serious about looking to improve your performance or of those you work with, the first step is to make sleep a priority by establishing and implementing regular good sleep hygiene habits.

Your brain (and others) will thank you for it.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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