“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Do you have any term time habits that you’d like to break? I find I tend to live a life of two halves: term time and holidays. In term time I am tired, stressed and frequently grumpy. I mainline coffee, live off sugar and carbs, console myself with wine and I am always starting an exercise routine ‘next week’. In the holidays I get enough sleep, I eat better, I see my friends and I exercise. In the holidays, I am happy.
I have been guilty of blaming my term time misery on work and telling myself that my job is killing me. But the reality is, the problem isn’t my job, the problem is me. Mindset trumps circumstances every time, therefore I need to take some of my holiday behaviours and embed them into term time if I want to be happy at work.
However, research suggests that 88% of people fail to stick to their behaviour change resolutions. This happens because our brains crave routine and resist change. But this year I am determined. I am going to change my approach to sleep and make rest my superpower.
The importance of sleep
I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know when I say restricting your sleep in order to fit in ‘important work’ is not a good plan. Lack of sleep affects everything – your mood, your memory, your ability to make decisions, the way you speak to people… The list goes on. When you’re tired it’s harder to stay on task, you’re more emotionally reactive, you have next to zero motivation and you make more mistakes. None of which is good, especially in a classroom. So why are we so willing to sacrifice our sleep?
We cut back on sleep when we have deadlines to meet or marking to do, or we can’t fall asleep or stay asleep because we have a lot on our mind, we’re anxious about something that has happened or something that we need to do, or because you have a baby to feed or it’s too hot, too cold, etc.. We plan to catch up on the weekend, or in the holidays or when the kids have left home! But that’s actually a very bad plan.
How much sleep do we really need?
Lack of sleep has been labelled a global pandemic, with one third of adults affected. Although there isn’t a one-size fits all magic amount of sleep we all need, every individual is different, the world’s largest sleep study (published in 2018) recommends between 7 and 9 hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. The current average is 6.5 hours. It might not sound like we’re missing the target by all that much, but if you’re getting less than seven hours on a regular basis that constitutes inadequate sleep. Over time what looks like a small sleep deficit compounds into a chronic sleep debt that you can’t easily ‘pay back’ with a nice weekend sleep-in. So if that sounds like you, you need to start prioritising sleep.
What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?
Recent research has identified that high stress combined with a lack of sleep is a toxic combination. It means you are at significantly higher risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and even premature death. Matt Walker, author of Why We Sleep, goes so far as to argue a causal link between sleep-deprivation and depression, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Sleep is also incredibly important for brain maintenance. When we sleep the brain takes time to clear out plaques and toxins that have built up during the day. Sleep helps us to think better because even though we’re not aware of it, while we are sleeping our brain is still working on the questions and problems that have occupied us during the day, and while we sleep our memories are formed. Meaning if we want to be able to learn and problem solve efficiently, we need to get enough sleep.
We work in a high pressure job. A fact confirmed by an Ofsted report released in the summer on Teacher Wellbeing. It held that levels of satisfaction with life for teachers is lower than that of the general public and that education professionals report the highest rates of work related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain. So if the choice is finish your marking or get your 7 – 9 hours of sleep, make the healthy choice and prioritise your sleep.
How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep?
If you can wake up feeling fresh and alert around about your desired time in the morning without using an alarm clock, then you’ve had enough sleep. If you’re finding it difficult to wake up, pressing snooze again and again, or even falling back to sleep in the morning, then you might be sleep deprived. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and give some thought to how you can get more sleep. Don’t wait until you hit burnout to try and address the damage that a lack of sleep has done to your mindset, your mood, your work, your health and your relationships.
How to prioritise sleep
When I am exhausted, I am the worst version of myself. That’s not the version I should be bringing to school. To do our job well we need to be well rested.
Here are three things to try if you’re interested in getting better quality sleep:
1. Adopt good sleep habits.
Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, yes even on weekends, and keep your bedroom cool (around 18-19 degrees Celsius), dark (try blockout shades if streetlights are a problem) and comfortable (if your pillows are lumpy and your mattress is a relic from the twentieth century, it’s time for change!).
2. Give your brain a break from technology.
Brain hyperstimulation is one of the most common reasons for poor sleep. If you keep using your brain for daytime activities right up to the point when you turn off the light, then you shouldn’t be surprised that your brain gets confused about what it’s supposed to be doing. Spending too much time on your smartphone or tablet in the evening before sleep has been shown to negatively impact not just the amount of sleep you get but also the quality of that sleep. So, switch off from ALL technology at least an hour before bed, this gives you time to wind down and ensures you are ready for sleep when you get into bed.
3. Move more sit less.
Insufficient exercise across the day can make it harder to sleep – the more active you are the better you sleep. The exception to the rule is vigorous exercise, try to schedule that for earlier in the day rather than close to the time you want to go to bed. And exercise even when you are tired, it’s hard and it sounds counterintuitive, but you’ll feel less tired and will sleep more soundly if you have been active during the day.
As teachers we face multiple crises everyday – some big and some small. In order to be able to think clearly and respond appropriately we need to be well rested. Sleep brings both personal and professional benefits: it recharges and renews us and as a result, we’re not only better at our jobs we’re also nicer to be around. With that in mind, I’m aiming for 8 hours a night – what about you?
“Sleep is the ultimate act of self care.”