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Everything You Need to Know About Sleep

Approximate reading time: 12 minutes.

You don't have to work in a school to understand the challenge of functioning after a sleepless night, but as someone working in education, research shows you are more likley to suffer sleep issues. In this handy guide we'll explore everything you need to know about sleep, from why it is important, to how you can combat some of the common sleep challenges faced by those working in education.

In 2022, it was reported that 50% of school staff had experienced insomnia or difficulty sleeping. That's in comparison to wider population averages of up to 40%. While the risks that can arise from poor sleep are obvious when it concerns jobs that involve driving and other precision-based tasks, the challenges of poor teacher and education staff sleep are more complex.

The occasional night of tossing and turning is unlikely to do much harm, but the consequences to school staff wellbeing can be severe when disrupted sleep becomes the norm. The good news is that there are some relatively simple steps you can take to improve your quality of sleep.

Why is sleep important?

The importance of sleep for teachers and other school staff can't be underestimated, but nor can it be precisely explained. Sleep research pioneer Allan Rechtschaffen, famously stated, "If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made."

Most researchers agree on two vital functions:

1. Sleep allows the body to physically recuperate

Recent research suggests that sleep plays multiple roles in biological changes at the molecular, cellular, and network levels. Short-term consequences include feeling sluggish, impaired motor performance and reduce alertness. Lack of sleep over a prolonged period can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of some diseases.

2. REM sleep appears essential to cognitive functions

It's believed that deep, REM sleep is an integral factor in the brain's ability to process information. Brain activity increases during REM sleep and studies show that sleep deprivation impairs cognition. This suggests a connection between deep, REM sleep and the neurophysiological process responsible for forming new connections between neurons.

Common causes of sleep disturbances

Some of the most commonly experienced sleeping problems are:

  • Insomnia: Struggling to fall asleep, waking frequently throughout the night, or waking too early and being unable to go back to sleep.
  • Partner disturbance: Having a partner who snores, moves around during the night or otherwise disturbs your sleep.
  • Sleep apnoea: A potentially life-threatening condition where breathing temporarily stops and starts during the night.

Consequences of poor sleep for school staff

Problems that teachers and school staff can experience as a result of poor sleep include:

Adverse impact on work

Many of the physical and mental consequences of poor teacher sleep can negatively impact the ability to do the job. Tiredness alone can heighten irritability, lower patience, and slow thinking. Such adverse effects are reflected in the large increases in symptoms of poor mental health experienced by education staff:

Difficulty concentrating29%44%
Irritability or mood swings35%45%

A negative effect on home and social life

It's not difficult to imagine the negative effects that poor sleep can have on your home and social life — anyone who's stayed a little too late on a night out, raised children, or marked a seemingly endless pile of pupils' work has experienced it firsthand.

84% of teachers and headteachers to NASUWT's 2022 Big Question Survey reported being too tired to enjoy the things they'd like to do after work. As well as making it harder to maintain relationships and interests, just 23% of teachers and headteachers said they were able to switch off from their work and relax at home.

Deteriorating mental health

Lack of quality sleep can drastically affect your mood, and long-term insomnia, which lasts three months or longer, is linked to higher risks of depression. The relationship between sleep and mental health is also bidirectional, making it possible to create a dangerous cycle:

  1. Stress triggers a surge in cortisol within the body.
  2. Cortisol makes falling asleep difficult because it inhibits melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep.
  3. Not being able to sleep exacerbates stress.

The amount of stress that school staff are under combined with data showing insomnia becoming more prevalent creates a worrying scenario.

6 tips for improving sleep

Here are 6 practical tips that can improve sleep and, by extension, school staff wellbeing:

1. Identify the cause of sleep problems

Identifying the underlying causes of your sleeping problems enables you to better address them. Some causes are easily identifiable, such as drinking too much caffeine, but others may require a little more investigation. To help you identify the cause of your sleep problems you can keep a sleep diary, track your daytime activity, and pay attention to what you eat and drink.

2. Aim to get enough quality sleep

You've probably heard that you need 8 hours of sleep each, but that's not necessarily true for everyone. Broadly speaking, most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night but it does vary from person to person and changes as you get older. If you need slightly more or less sleep to feel rested and alert, then that's fine. However, it's important to make sure that you're sleeping long enough to reap the benefits of deep and REM sleep.

3. Keep a regular sleep schedule

When you go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, you're effectively setting and maintaining your circadian rhythm. This is often referred to as your internal body clock because it's what regulates your natural sleep-wake cycle. While the workday dictates this to an extent, it's usually best to work with your natural sleep and wake times as much as possible.

The circadian rhythm doesn't acknowledge the weekend, so try to maintain your sleep schedule on weekends and during holidays as best you can. If you need to shift your natural sleep pattern, do so in 15-minute increments each day.

4. Optimise your bedroom for sleep

It's important to create an atmosphere that encourages sleep and reduces the chances of environmental changes waking you during the night. Try the following to optimise your bedroom for sleep:

  • Use blackout blinds or curtains
  • Keep your bedroom cool (ideally between 16°C and 19°C)
  • Keep your work out of the bedroom
  • Invest in a good mattress if possible
  • Use an eye mask and/or earplugs if necessary

5. Prepare your body for sleep

It's just as important to prepare your body for sleep as it is to adjust your bedroom. External changes act as cues to your circadian rhythm and tell your body when it's time to sleep. Tell your body it's time for bed by doing the following:

  • Stop working at least 2 hours before you go to bed
  • Dim the lights two hours before you try to sleep
  • Avoid bright TV, computer and phone screens directly before bed
  • Avoid caffeine in the evening (aim to stop drinking it 8 hours before going to bed)
  • Leave at least four hours between exercise and sleep
  • Leave a couple of hours between heavy meals and going to bed
  • Avoid alcohol before going to sleep
  • Try to relax for at least an hour before you go to bed

6. Prepare your mind for sleep

Many people have trouble sleeping because their minds are racing with thoughts, worries and anxieties. Preparing your mind for sleep aims to help you relax and reduce stress-related thoughts that can prevent you from sleeping. A simple yet effective way of doing this is to write down any worries that are on your mind in a notebook before you go to bed. Once you've done this, close the notebook and leave it aside. Other options include mindfulness apps or white noise generators to reduce the amount of mental chatter that can keep you awake at night.

Where to get help

If you have symptoms of sleep apnoea, are experiencing long-term insomnia, or are concerned about mental health, you should make an appointment with your GP, or reach out to the Sleep Charity on 03303 530 541 for support.

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