Work is where we do some of our most intense thinking, but it’s at bedtime that we lay the foundations for our mind’s creative prowess. Sleep is fertile ground for the imagination as our dreams attempt to make sense of the subconscious – our wishes, hopes and fears.
Can dreaming help us find answers to our work problems? Sleep experts believe so.
Dr Els van der Helm at sleep consultant Shleep explains that creativity and execution are the cornerstones of innovation. “Though improving sleep won’t guarantee the next breakthrough, it certainly increases the chances of coming up with extraordinary connections and pushing through with them.”
How REM works
When it comes to dreaming, we know that REM – dream sleep – stimulates the intelligent information processing that inspires creativity and promotes problem solving. In his 2017 book Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker hypothesises that during REM sleep, the part of the brain responsible for what one would call our reality-evaluating system – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – stops operating. This freedom from everyday rational structure allows the brain to creatively form strange, fantastical connections and links that otherwise would never come together in the same way.
Whether a person is looking for a shortcut in a number sequence or learning a new language with higher-level grammatical rules, studies show that they appear more likely to come up with innovative solutions to tricky problems the morning after a dream-filled night.
Good sleep also boosts cognitive (IQ) and social-emotional (EQ) skills through a deep impact on the prefrontal cortex. We use emotion for navigating decisions and logic to calculate risks and opportunities.
The big sleep problem
Positive sleep awareness has moved to the top of many organisations’ wellbeing agenda for one major reason. Diminished productivity resulting from a lack of sleep hits the bottom line. Worst-case scenario, a single incident of tiredness-related mistakes, like a fat-finger error, may have personal, legal and cost implications that could last for years.
Compared to a person who is well-rested, a highly fatigued worker will be less alert, less able to mentally process information, less situationally aware and, crucially, work with slower reaction times.
However, denial is rife. Many of us are so deeply in debt at the sleep bank that we consider our tiredness to be a perfectly natural state. A proactive approach to good sleep is a matter of personal responsibility, but when it comes to chronic insomnia, it can help to speak up. Self-styled sleep geek James Wilson believes that most sleep-deprived workers are only too willing to reach out for help once the subject is raised as part of a wider conversation about health and wellbeing.
Wilson says, “Poor sleep is something that many of us suffer from, but often hide because we fear being stigmatised. We cannot force ourselves to sleep better, but we can get better at preparing ourselves for sleep. I find that when people understand the distinction – when they feel they are being supported rather than patronised – we see some great results.”
Make the workplace sleep-friendly
Dr Van der Helm suggests employers start with a team evaluation to see how well employees sleep. Awareness of any issues – if introduced subtly – will create a platform for positive change.
Psychologist Hope Bastine of wellbeing consultancy Fresh Perception stresses that a sleep-positive work culture has to be part of a more contemporary, holistic view about productivity in general. Bastine says, “It’s all about trust and balance. Most employees are highly motivated to do good work and get the job done. This mindset can be encouraged by appreciating that conflicting home and work priorities are often best met through flexible working agreements.”
Supporting colleagues flexibly as individuals is the most effective policy to help people bring their best selves to work, recommends Bastine. “Autonomy supports wellbeing. All of us have our own biological rhythms, and this is particularly evident when looking at sleep patterns.”
Small, yet effective changes
The most common problems are insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality. Some people need help de-stressing. Others can make small changes like eating earlier, changing their bedding or altering the temperature in the bedroom. However, perhaps the most important change is simply to learn to prioritise sleep as something to look forward to, while being consistent in the times you go to bed and get up in the morning, even at weekends.
The future of positive sleep awareness as part of a well-at-work programme may point to advanced chronotype-analysis techniques, to find out at what time of day a person works best, and then optimise when it is best for us to work, rest and play. The implications of buying into a 24-hour flexible workday are enormous. Combined alongside other smart working practices, this could help organisations reach new levels of productivity, employee retention and personal satisfaction.
Keep an eye out for homeWORK magazine in the lobby area of all Workspace centres, containing more wellbeing advice from key experts.
For more on how to increase your productivity at work, read Just Do It and learn how to beat procrastination. Or if it's stress that's affecting your sleeping habits, find out how to minimise it with expert tips from wellbeing coach Michael Adu.