“O Gentle Sleep! Nature’s Soft Nurse…”

Many of us will have experienced difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep (insomnia) at some point, either due to stress, a new baby, injuries, jet lag, night shifts, or the effects of too much caffeine and alcohol. In fact some consider it a normal part of daily life, and describe it as starting the day backwards, by waking up tired and going to bed wide-awake. Insomnia can be short term, lasting days or weeks, or long term, lasting more than a month. The effects can be debilitating, such as daytime sleepiness, low energy and concentration, irritability, and a depressed mood

Sleep deprivation studies in the USA found that disturbed sleep was associated with approximately 7% of all high cost workplace accidents and errors, and almost 24% of the overall costs of all accidents and errors. Sleep deprivation rated higher than any of the other medical conditions examined. 

Even staff within regulated work environments (eg air cabin crew, medical staff, and rail drivers), with strict protocols in place for rest periods and working hours, are not immune from the risks of sleep deprivation. A trainee Australian pilot, flying a solo navigation flight, missed air-traffic control calls for 40 minutes, as he was unconscious. Fortunately the pilot recovered and was escorted by another aircraft to safe landing. An investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) found the pilot experienced insomnia the night before the flight, and had eaten very little for breakfast. The pilot’s flight school plans to revisit their education programme on fatigue.

According to a study conducted by RAND Europe, sleep deprivation costs the British economy £40 billion a year (nearly 2% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product). The lead investigator of the study, Dr Marco Hafner, stated: “ improving individual sleep habits and duration has huge implication. Simple changes can make a big difference”. 

It seems Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has taken heed, as he shared on Instagram that he had invented a sleep aid for his wife, who was experiencing disturbed sleep patterns. He designed a simple wooden box for her bedside cabinet, to emit a faint light at the base of the box between 6am and 7am. His wife reported that when she woke up during the night, and the light was not visible, she could go peacefully back to sleep. 

Very few of us suffering regularly from insomnia understand that it is a medical condition and seek out treatment. The NHS has been campaigning to increase awareness about the long-term implications of sleep deprivation, such as:

  • Weight gain 
  • Depression and anxiety 
  • Lower immune system responses increasing susceptibility to bugs 
  • Diabetes 
  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure 

Employers can be proactive by implementing education programmes about the seriousness of the condition, and courses of action to consider. 

Stress is a common bedfellow for insomnia, which may trigger mental health conditions and feed the insomnia cycle further. Some organisations are now training staff in Mental First Aid. I would recommend MHFA England, as their two-day programme provided me with valuable insight into mental health in the workplace, and interventions one can make, to help staff maintain wellbeing and achieve their goals.

Time to wake up to the risks of sleep deprivation. 

2 responses to ““O Gentle Sleep! Nature’s Soft Nurse…””

  1. Russell Dickinson-Deane Avatar

    Sleeplessness is horrible. Thos long hours, lying awake waiting for dawn to come, worrying about things that would not bother you normally – wave upon wave of anxiety. It wears you down cumulatively and makes you less able to deal with the everyday. Great that you point this out.

  2. Kath Harmeston Avatar
    Kath Harmeston

    Thanks R
    Its good to know it made a connection with you!