There is a busyness epidemic happening around the world today. My husband and I went out for breakfast recently, and I was so disappointed to observe this beautiful family of four sitting in their seats in silence, each attached to some type of electronic gadget. You can go anywhere today - the grocery store, doctor's office, a restaurant, walking down the street - and see people obsessively checking their Smart phones. Our modern day drive toward fast-paced busyness is now a pathology (Schulte, 2014), and we are paying the price with our health, disconnected and fragmented relationships, and lack of purpose.
One of the first things to go in favor of adding more to our already too-busy schedules is sleep. And in the workplace, he or she who sleeps the least brags the most. According to Christopher Drake, an associate professor of medicine at Wayne State University, "just four hours of sleep loss will produce as much impairment as a six pack of beer. If you have a whole night of sleep loss, that's the equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of .19." I suspect you wouldn't even show up to work with this level of impairment, much less brag about it.
Lack of Sleep: The Impact to the Workplace
While lack of sleep in favor of working more is often supported and even rewarded in the workplace, lost sleep costs businesses over $63 billion annually in lost productivity. In my burnout prevention work, I teach a three-part burnout formula -- too many job demands, not enough job resources, and too little recovery. The recovery component is a key part of this formula, as it measures the ways you are re-charging at work, after work each night, on the weekends, and during vacations. I consistently find that busyness interferes with the ability to adequately recover. A recent Harris Interactive survey found that Americans had an average of 9.2 days of unused vacation in 2012 - up from 6.2 days in 2011.
Lack of Sleep: The Impact on Health
Lack of sleep clearly impacts health. People who average less than seven hours of sleep each night were almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who had eight hours or more of sleep. Job stress also drives sleep issues. In the past month, American workers reported 5.3 days of difficulty falling asleep, 6.6 days of trouble staying asleep, and 5 days of trouble waking up for work. In addition, poor sleep quality is linked to risk of heart attacks and coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, more aches and pains, and can be a factor for the onset of mental health problems, like depression. In addition, more studies are finding gender differences -- "poor sleep and sleep-related problems are more strongly associated with poor health outcomes in women than in men." Finally, an estimated 20% of vehicle crashes are linked to driving drowsy.
Strategies to Help
If you're one of the millions of people who have a difficult time either falling asleep or staying asleep, try one of these strategies:
Create a bedtime ritual. My bedtime ritual usually consists of falling asleep during The Tonight Show and waking up sometime between midnight and 2am completely groggy and in a fog. Clearly I need to take my own advice. Bedtime rituals are your regular way of powering down from a long day. Maybe it's a nice warm bath? A good book? Story time with the kids? Whatever you decide to do, make sure to leave your electronic gadgets in a different room. The light from the screens and audible pings can prevent you from falling asleep, wake you up, and stress you out (clients who email at 3am with some urgent matter needing to be handled by 7am).
Play a mental game. This was a popular technique we taught in the resilience training program for soldiers (Reivich & Shatte, 2002). If you need to temporarily "change the channel" of your thinking so that you can focus and concentrate on the task at hand (in this case, getting to sleep), play a mental game. Mental games are fun, easy brain activities to help you lessen distraction. You can count backwards by 7 starting at 1000, recite upbeat song lyrics or try my favorite one: create a sentence where every word must begin with the same letter, starting with "A." For example, "All aardvarks are awesome." Then go onto "B." "Big bananas buy boats."
Tame the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect, named for the researcher who discovered it in the 1920's, refers to your tendency to ruminate about all of the unfinished tasks you didn't complete (Syrek & Antoni, 2014). I feel a quick jolt of accomplishment every time I cross something off of my to-do list, and now I know why. One way to lessen the impact of the Zeigarnik effect is to keep a pad of paper next to your bed and do a "brain spill." Whatever you're stewing about, put it on paper. This simple strategy relaxes your brain so it can focus on sleep.
Find the good stuff. Our brains are hardwired to notice, seek out, and remember negative events and information. It's called the negativity bias. Negative emotions command your attention during the day and have physiological consequences that can interfere with sleep. Simply writing down a couple of good things that happened to you each day with a reflection about why those good things were important can lead to better sleep. In fact, one of my workshop participants told me that as an insomniac, he had struggled for years to get adequate sleep. By doing this simple exercise, he reported that he was sleeping better than he had in years.
Sit less & exercise more. This isn't new advice, but the connection between exercise and sleep is powerful. Exercisers report better sleep than non-exercisers, even though they slept the same amount each night. In addition, "more than two-thirds of vigorous exercisers say they rarely or never had symptoms associated with insomnia." Finally, people who sit for less than eight hours a day are much more likely to report that they have very good sleep quality as compared to people who are more sedentary.
I recently mentioned the statistic about impairment after sleep loss on Twitter, and one of my followers responded with pride about how he has conditioned himself to function on four hours of sleep or less each day. We need to change the conversation around sleep being a serious element of resilience and well-being, not the first thing cut in favor of adding more to our already too-busy schedules.
For more tools and tips to build your resilience to stress and prevent burnout, click here for a free copy of her e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. Her website is www.pauladavislaack.com.
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Reivich, K., & Shatte, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor. New York: Broadway Books.
Schulte, B. (2014). Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. New York: Sarah Crichton Books.
Syrek, C.J., & Antoni, C.H. (2014). Unfinished tasks foster rumination and impair sleeping - particularly if leaders have high performance expectations. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19(4), 490-499.