How Sleep Impacts Our Mental Health

close up of a pretty black woman with curly hair sleeping in bed closed eyes

‘When was the last time you woke up feeling rested during the work week?’. This is the first question I ask when working with groups on improving their sleep. Was it this week? This month? This year? Usually around a quarter of the room will have felt rested once or twice in the last month and the rest will not have… which is scarily low in my opinion, given the impact a lack of sleep has on us. ‘Sleep when you’re dead’ is a saying that Matt Walker, a sleep expert, calls ‘mortally bad advice’, in his recent Ted Talk on ‘The Power of Sleep’. Sleep is our life support system. A lack of sleep impacts our lives in many ways, from our mental, physical and social health through to our education. This article highlights how much it specifically impacts our mental health.

It is Mental Health Awareness Week next week, a great opportunity for us to break down the common stigmas around mental health. We can help people to learn more about what mental health is, how it impacts our health and happiness, as well as how to integrate actions in our lives that will make us mentally healthier. It is our hope, at Rener Wellbeing, that actions made by organisations and individuals this week are continued sustainably going forward, rather than just being a week long spike in consciousness and action. At Rener Wellbeing we look at wellbeing through a four pronged holistic approach, focusing on: mental health, physical activity, sleep and nutrition. Each area of wellbeing impacts the others, for example being more physically active can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety as well as help us fall asleep faster and improve the quality of our sleep.

Impact of sleep on our mental health:

NHS Livewell highlights that we should be sleeping between seven and nine hours a night, however many of us in the UK don’t, 1 in 3 people are affected by insomnia in the UK. This number scares me, as sleep deprivation impacts our mental health so significantly. This image can be depicted by looking at psychiatric practices. Sleep deprivation is seen in 50-80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared to 10-18% of adults in the US population according to a piece by Harvard Health Publishing from earlier this year.

When looking at the impact of daylight savings in both directions, there is a significant impact in the number of heart attacks that occur, but also the number of suicides. Suicide can be linked to depresion, which is also impacted by sleep. Those that suffer from depression and also struggle with sleep will be less likely to respond to treatment that those who do sleep well.

Sleep impacts our chances of Alzheimers and Dementia. When comparing the hippocampus’s (small organ in our temporal lobe that is mainly associated with long-term memory) ability to store memories between sleep deprived people and people who had a good night’s sleep, the sleep deprived group’s hippocampuses almost bounce back memories, rather than keeping them in the so called memory inbox, where those who have slept well will managed to store memories far more effectively.

We have 40% less capacity to learn when sleep deprived compared to those that have slept well. In an exam that is the difference between getting an A* and failing miserably. If I had a pill that could help improve your memory by 40% I am sure a lot of readers would take it, and also pay a lot for it. In the workplace, if we encourage our staff to sleep more, they will become better learners, more attentive, focused, and engaged.

Stress and anxiety are prominent within the workplace, I am sure if you are reading this and you suffer from anxiety sometimes, you will know that when you are tired you are probably more likely to feel anxious than if you were rested. I am sure you also found it harder to fall asleep when feeling anxious, which causes a slightly unfair vicious cycle.

According to Deloitte Analysis, with more sleep comes better decision making. We are more likely to think outside of the box and be creative with more sleep. Our decisions tend to be more ethical and we have more will power. We will also be more emotionally stable and less erratic.

Change the culture of sleep in your organisation:

As with mental health, there is also a stigma around sleep. Some see it as a necessary inconvenience, or worse, for lightweights. Someone that sleeps a lot sometimes gets seen as lazy. Being in organisations where people brag about the fact they slept four hours the night before and still feel great is detrimental to their staff’s wellbeing and mental health, as well as to their work. It is imperative to develop a culture where the stigma around sleep is broken and sleep and holistic wellbeing are encouraged. This will help to prevent sleep deprivation being common in your workplace.

Alongside developing a culture that encourages sleep and wellbeing as a whole, train your managers to understand what sleep deprivation is and how to look for it in their team. For example is there decreased communication, increased caffeine intake, poor mood and increased absence in an individual? Then analyse if the deprivation is due to work-related causes, such as their levels of stress, their shifts and quality of their work relationships. Are they able to work on their mental health, be physically active and eat well? If there are work related causes, then it is important to develop a wellbeing strategy with board-room level buy in.

Tips to better sleep: 

  • Reduce caffeine intake. Do this gradually so it is sustainable. Last coffee of the day with lunch?
  • Less alcohol! Even though it is a sedative, the quality of your sleep will be impaired.
  • Regularity in sleep and wake times, even on the weekends will lead to the best quality and duration of sleep. If you have an irregular schedule or travel across time-zones, try your best to get back into a routine when you can.
  • Keep your room cool, 18 degrees Celsius is the ideal temperature for most people.
  • Stay away from screens before going to sleep. Keep your screens outside the bedroom if you can!
  • Use mindfulness apps to help you fall asleep.
  • Dim the lights in your house when preparing to go to sleep and keep your room dark when sleeping.


About the author 

As the Director and a Wellbeing Consultant at Rener Wellbeing, Khalil Rener is passionate about helping companies to sustainably improve their employees’ wellbeing.

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