How good sleep can support your mental wellbeing

Lisa Artis
Lisa Artis

Deputy CEO of the Sleep Charity

We know sleep is important for our mental and physical wellbeing – but how does it affect our working lives too? We asked Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity, to explain why everybody benefits from good quality sleep, and how employers can support their staff to get the rest they need.


Sleep fulfills a vital role in keeping us healthy and happy. Getting quality sleep means we are recharged and ready to face what life may throw at us. We all know that coping with feelings of stress and anxiety can be much more difficult when you’re tired from disturbed sleep. Keeping a regular sleep-wake pattern allows the natural rhythm of the body to be reset every day and therefore optimises brain functioning.

But sleep deprivation has a negative effect on physical and emotional ability.

Quality sleep is always more important than quantity. For instance, it’s better to get six hours of good quality sleep than eight hours of interrupted sleep.

Just one night of interrupted sleep negatively affects mood, attention span and cognitive ability

Sleep deprivation, also known as insufficient sleep or sleeplessness, is the condition of not having enough sleep. It can be either chronic or acute and may vary widely in severity.

In today’s busy world we’re all very eager to believe that sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity but, in reality, it’s likely to have the opposite effect.

Just one night of interrupted sleep negatively affects mood, attention span and cognitive ability. But an occasional night where sleep is disturbed won’t harm your health – you’ll just be tired the next day, and grumpier – not so great for your colleagues or partner!

A man experiences burnout at a small food stand

Chronic sleep debt, however, can have a seriously damaging effect on our mental and physical health. A good night’s sleep is vital as a restorative time and plays a significant role in healing and repairing the heart and blood vessels. It also gives the immune system and the cardiovascular system a rest and allows other organs to be restored. It can lead to poor mental health which in turn can affect our social relationships.

Getting good quality sleep is essential

Sleep loss can also have a wide-ranging impact on job retention and performance in the workplace. In the short term, affected people may not feel motivated, positive, or energised​Energy recovery PDF This one-page PDF guide covers how to build energy recovery into your day, including tips on what to eat, what helpful breaks are, and listening to signals from your body.Free By: Unilever View resource to perform. Equally they may be more irritable and impatient with colleagues. There are issues with concentration, problem solving and increased errors​Focus PDF This one-page PDF from Unilever explores ways of helping you to regain your focus, allowing you to give tasks your undivided attention.Free By: Unilever View resource. Workplace stressors are viewed more negatively.

Sleep deprivation also impacts on driving ability too – our reaction times, judgement and decision making are impaired. Longer-term insomnia significantly reduces our ability to be the best we can be but is a major workplace risk and a contributor to accidents, injuries and death​Self support techniques after a traumatic incident PDF Healthy processing of traumatic incidents is essential in policing to reset your stress response, to file events as past, and to move on to the next job. This guide can help.Free By: Police Dependants’ Trust View resource.

Getting good quality sleep is essential and it’s one of the most restorative things we can do.

A desk with a laptop, coffee, and napping cat.

Lack of sleep can affect mental health​Sleep and mental health PDF This one-page PDF fact sheet from Unilever highlights some of the reasons why poor mental health and sleep deprivation are linked, and offers techniques for improving the amount and quality of your sleep.Free By: Unilever View resource, but mental health problems can also affect how well you sleep – both the quantity and the quality of it – which is why it’s extremely important to address both issues. Any health professional will always enquire about both mood​Emotional resilience support forum Web page This training session from the Hummingbird Project is designed to help your staff to focus on their emotional wellbeing, encouraging the group to identify their own barriers and difficulties and thinking of solutions that work for them as individuals.Paid forRequires pre-booking By: The Hummingbird Project View resource and sleep behaviour when making any kind of diagnosis.

There is lots of advice on how to sleep better and most importantly, individuals should complete a sleep diary for two weeks to try identify where the issues with their sleep might be – is it light, what they’re eating or drinking etc.

Eliminate the factors that are causing disturbed sleep

To experience good sleep it’s essential to follow sensible lifestyle habits and to eliminate the factors​Sleep enablers and preventers PDF This one-page PDF offers advice on what behaviours can help you to have a good night's sleep, and which habits you might want to change.Free By: Unilever View resource that are causing disturbed sleep. For example, making sure that the bedroom is the right environment (cool, dark and quiet), that the bed is up to scratch, looking at light levels and keeping the bedroom clutter free.

Avoid screen time at least an hour before bed and find alternative ways of relaxing like warm baths with calming scents, quiet soothing music, reading, gentle stretching​Musculoskeletal health in the workplace: a toolkit for employers PDF Good musculoskeletal (MSK) health is integral to a full working life, and there's a clear link between MSK problems and mental health and wellbeing. This toolkit explains the issues and has practical guidance to promote MSK health in the workplace.Free By: Business in the Community View resource and yoga.

A man reads in bed

It’s also important to establish a regular sleep pattern – going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time. Bodies and minds will feel much better for it.

Stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol​Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work: guidance for line managers PDF Drug or alcohol problems can affect anyone, and it's possible their use might impact on someone's work performance. This guidance from the CIPD aims to help line managers to effectively support and manage someone who is struggling with drugs and/or alcohol.Free By: CIPD View resource, which may initially help people fall sleep, will only lead to interrupted sleep – either waking up dehydrated or needing the loo. Avoiding caffeine four to five hours before bedtime (and don’t forget that there’s caffeine in tea and in lots of other fizzy drinks!) can help. Ideally swap your bedtime drink for a hot milky drink or a herbal tea instead.

Around 200,000 working days lost in the UK every year because of poor sleep

There are lots of ways employers can help their staff to sleep better, especially as around 4 in every 10 adults suffer with sleep issues and there are around 200,000 working days lost in the UK every year because of poor sleep.

Firstly, where possible try to develop a new policy or guidelines that covers sleep and fatigue in the workplace and consider having a sleep ambassador who can champion sleep.

You can then consider offering flexible start times​​Flexibility for who? Millennials and mental health in the modern labour market PDF Younger workers are more likely to be in part-time, flexible or temporary work, overqualified or self-employed—and this contractual flexibility can be a risk to their mental health. This report outlines the problem and the opportunities to take action.Free By: Business in the Community View resource (where a role allows), where employees can arrive late after a poor night’s sleep, and make provision for nap rooms or quiet resting areas or even run workshops or training on how to improve sleep patterns as well as on general health.

Employees attend a workshop

It’s worth setting an example and actively discourage emails and calls after work. The constant access employees can have with work can create work fatigue, never being able to fully escape or disengage from the office.

Promote the benefits of high-quality downtime from when they leave the office until they return on the next day – so they can spend more time with family and friends – and then hopefully return more enthused, energetic and productive. And highlight at a minimum the basics around sleep hygiene​Sleep hygiene PDF A good night’s sleep refuels, revitalises and re-energises you, making you feel refreshed, positive and equipped to cope with the stresses of a normal day. This guide makes some suggestions on how you might improve the quality of your sleep.Free By: Unilever View resource such as regular hours, a bedtime routine and looking at the bedroom environment.

If employers spot a change in an employee’s behaviour, attitude or productivity, then try talking to them. Try to adopt a culture where employees feel they can talk openly and honestly about sleep issues without feeling judged, deemed as lazy or that they will be penalised. Be patient, understanding and take the sleep issue seriously.

However, ultimately it is down to the individual to take ownership of their sleep and ‘want’ to make changes.

Our individual sleep needs vary

Most people believe they should be sleeping between 7-8 hours a night and while there is a general consensus that this is an ideal amount for a healthy adult, our individual needs do vary. One size doesn’t fit all. The best way to determine if you’re getting enough sleep is to look at how you feel the next day. Being tired doesn’t mean you’ve not had enough sleep. However if you feel sleepy, exhausted and unable to function then chances are you are not sleeping well.

If you are struggling with sleep please do call the National Sleep Helpline on 03303 530 541.

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