Poor sleep is a guaranteed performance killer - and work stress the ultimate sleep disrupter. This month, our career columnists Alice Olins and Phanella Mayall Fine reveal their five-point plan for staying well rested and resilient
We are living proof that to be productive at work, you need to be kind to yourself when it comes to those precious hours of shuteye. The launch of our book last year meant that we were not living by our usual mantras and advice: we felt jittery, we were working too late into the evening, we slept with our phones by our sides, because it was a big Step Up moment and we found it hard to chill. The result was two stinking colds between us and an entire week when we were woefully unproductive. Seriously, we sat out our computers and just stared at the screens. We spent four hours writing three emails and our heads hurt.
Thankfully, each week is a new dawn and we’re back on track. We’ve made a conscious decision to prioritise sleep again. So we're writing about how to sleep well and work hard. As we learned, the better rested we are, the more productive we will be. Lack of sleep or even poor quality rest, elevates levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lowers our resilience and generally gets in the way of our effectiveness at work. On the flipside, the more anxious we become, the more difficult it becomes to get a good night’s sleep.
And it’s not just quantity, but quality too. Rest is driven as much by our bodies as by our minds. Lower your cortisol and calm by taking yourself out of your stress bubble every day. How? Read on for our Step Up guide to a more peaceful mind and an energised career.
1. HAVE SMART PHONE BOUNDARIES
We are all constantly plugged into our phones; that flash of light, that ping. While it seems fun and distracting in the moment, phones impact on our sleep. Research says that these days, many of us spend more time tending to the needs of our phones, than we do our lovers. This is a dangerous game on many levels, not least because being in a close, loving relationship often aids our pursuit of overall contentment.
The Internet, social media and our phone – the biggest conduits of our online addictions – interrupt our brains’ optimal functioning. They make us needy and angsty; they are a modern-day drug which constantly penetrate our peaceful (ish) lives. Using our phones means we end up over-stimulated, overtired; both of these erode our sense of balance and our ability to perform or concentrate at a high level. We say, put your phones away at a designated time each night (the earlier, the better) and whatever you do, do not take them into the bedroom. When you give your brain a phone break, you allow yourself to become naturally more relaxed and by doing this, you will find that you fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer.
2. BE COMPARISON FREE
Comparison is the enemy of calm, because it revs us up into thinking we have to be like someone else, or do better than someone else. When we do this, we create within ourselves a low level anxiety that makes it hard to switch off. Comparison isn’t just caused by flicking through your Instagram account; try to check yourself during the day, at work or when you are with friends too, because all can be instigators of that stressful feeling of not being good enough. In fact, comparison is not only detrimental to our state of mind, but it can often be just plain wrong. Someone’s external façade can often belie the reality going on backstage. Be kind to yourself, know your own strength and brilliance - and see how you sleep better.
3. MANAGE YOUR ENERGY
If we’ve read it once, we’ve read it a thousand times: one thing that successful women share is their energy levels. It’s not innate - successful women’s adrenal glands don’t secrete caffeine! Energy is something that can be cultivated.
The reason we are so interested in energy, is because good sleep is at the heart of energy. It sounds obvious, but sometimes you need to read that in black and white to accept the truth of the matter. We spoke to the very well-rested foodie Jasmine Hemsley while we were writing the book. Here is what she says: “Sleep and proper downtime are the things that always get compromised in a busy career. Passion gives you energy, but you have to check in with yourself as new and exciting opportunities and ideas pop up. Sometimes, you just have to block out a day in the diary… otherwise you will totally burn out. So if I am tired, I say I am tired. If I feel exhausted, I give into it, go home and go to bed at 9 o’clock and feel brand new the next day.”
4. CULTIVATE RESILIENCE
There are two sides to the resilience coin: if you sleep well you will be more resilient at work - and if you’re more resilient at work, you will sleep better too. Interestingly, resilience is as much driven by our bodies as by our minds. We have already talked about cortisol. A simple lunchtime walk in the park or pre-work yoga session can be disproportionately effective in calming us down. And the effects of both will last into the evening, driving your sleep. To reach this resilience nirvana, you can also start the ball rolling by eating the right foods. Caffeine, alcohol and sugar are the things we crave when we’re feeling stressed, but of course, these all end up keeping us awake. The more tired and stressed you feel, the more conscious you need to be about what you eat.
5. FIND YOUR FLEX STYLE
When we talk about balance in the book - and obviously feeling balanced goes hand-in-hand with sleeping well - we explore the theory of ‘flex styles’; or in other words, how to make sure your work schedule is in tune with you. In the main, women fall into three flex style categories: Integrators, Separators and Volleyers. As their names suggests, Integrators feel energised blending their work and personal lives, there is no clear line between the two.
Alice is a natural Integrator who is happy mixing up her personal and work responsibilities. While she is careful not to be on work calls, or check emails when her daughters are in tow, she's always happy to allocate slices of time during the day to each side of her life so that she can keep all her plates simultaneously spinning. Alice finds this blend energising and exciting but needs to be careful. When she plays too fast and loose with her boundaries, checking emails late at night in bed, for example, adrenaline will stop her getting the sleep she needs. Separators, on the other hand, use physical space and shrewd scheduling to keep things divided.
Phanella is a down-to-the ground Separator, drawing clear boundaries of time and space between each area of her life. Order keeps her calm and in control, but with hectic work and personal lives the clarity she craves isn’t always possible. If she allows the craziness to encroach – working late or taking calls on the school run – the stress of working against her type can make sleep hard to grasp. Even amidst the chaos she has to be clear: for example, always turning off her email an hour before she goes up to bed. When we know our type and consciously operate within our comfort zone, sleep will come all the easier.