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Why Sleep Is the Answer to Managing Mental Health at Work

Mental health issues within the workplace are the leading cause of sickness absence, with 70 million work days lost each year at a cost of £2.4 billion to the economy.

High stress levels and poor work-life balance are often blamed, which explains why most mental health programmes aim to decrease daytime employee distress and increase resilience. Given that most of us experience our work, and therefore our stress, during the day, it’s only natural for such programmes to be daytime-focused. However, recent scientific research suggests that focusing on the nighttime, and specifically on getting a good night’s sleep, could be the answer to managing our daytime mental health.

Poor sleep has long been reported as a symptom of mental illness, but scientists now suggest that not getting enough sleep or experiencing disrupted sleep can actually put you at a greater risk of mental illness. Given that the UK is reportedly experiencing a sleepless epidemic, it is possible that we’re stuck in a vicious cycle whereby the nation’s sleeplessness is fuelling the nation’s mental health risk, and vice versa.


How are poor sleep and mental health connected?

Many of the brain’s chemicals responsible for enabling us to sleep well are the same chemicals as those responsible for managing our mental health, so it’s hardly surprising that when one becomes disturbed, so does the other!

We all know that after a restless night we are more likely to be short tempered, irritable and moody, hence the phrase “getting out of bed the wrong side”. This happens because poor sleep rewires our brains, shifting the amygdala, your emotional centre, away from the pre-frontal cortex (the part responsible for rationalising experiences and emotions) and towards the brain stem responsible for triggering fight and flight type reactions. The result is that we tend to view ourselves, others and the world around us in a more negative light, which if prolonged increases our mental health risk.

Disturbed sleep is also a typical part of mental illness, with sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnoea and nightmares being commonplace. For example, anxiety sufferers can find it hard to fall to sleep due to constant worrying, whereas people suffering from depression tend to oversleep, or sleep during the day. The complete absence of sleepiness is also common in mania, whereas disturbed sleep from nightmares and flashbacks is common with trauma sufferers.

So strong is the link between poor sleep and poor mental health that it is now being seen by both clinicians and sufferers alike as an early warning sign of episodes of depression, mania and even psychosis.


Can better sleep lead to better mental health?

Given that poor sleep can lead to poorer mental health, it makes total sense that the opposite should be true. However, it’s only recently that this is being confirmed.

In 2011, there was a scientific study which showed the defusing effect that a normal night’s sleep can have on our emotions, and therefore on our reactions to the world around us. Two groups of participants were shown a set of disturbing images. After the same number of hours, they were shown the same images again. One group displayed no difference in their emotional reactions; the other group, however, reacted less emotionally when seeing the images again. The difference between the two groups? Sleep. The first group was shown the images during the daytime, and had therefore not slept in between the two viewings, whereas the second group was shown the images at night, and then again in the morning after a good night’s sleep.

The emotionally defusing effect of sleep can be explained by the fact that during REM sleep, which the second group was allowed to experience, participants subconsciously reviewed the disturbing images from earlier in the day, but in a state where their stress hormones were suppressed. This allowed the brain to sort and defuse any unwanted emotions, mentally preparing the participants to deal with looking at the images again.


Another recent scientific study found that managing sleep disturbance in depression sufferers doubled the effectiveness of the depression treatment. Similar results can be found within Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Schizophrenia, where improved sleep was linked to both reduced hyperactivity and paranoid thinking.



If you are thinking about how to improve the mental health of your employees, then helping them to get a good night’s sleep could be the answer!

To understand how The Sleep School’s Professional programme could help your employees please click here.