Date posted: 16/09/2019 10 min read

Snooze it or lose it

Working tired is like working drunk, but you can avoid a fatigue crisis with these tips from sleep experts and busy CAs.

In Brief

  • Four in 10 Australians are not getting the sleep they need.
  • Over three months, 29% of adults reported making errors at work due to sleepiness or sleep problems.
  • Access to the internet and the digitisation of work are affecting sleeping patterns.

By Fiona Smith

Jen Dalitz CA plans her whole week around getting to bed on time. She knows she needs seven hours of sleep each night, otherwise she won’t be functioning at her best. Optimum performance is critical for Dalitz: she has a lot on her plate already and is preparing to take on another role.

The Sydney-based CEO of networking association Women in Banking and Finance is preparing to add a board position with a small bank to her growing portfolio of directorships. “I have become a little bit fixated with sleep,” she admits.

“I do travel quite a lot for work and I try to plan my travel around my routine, which includes sleep. Where I can I try to avoid late-night flights because I find they affect me more than early morning ones. I don’t do really early flights either,” she says.

Because Dalitz likes to go for a 5am walk, she makes sure she “hits the sack” by at least 10pm. Alcohol, which disrupts sleep, is a “no-no”. She also switches off her phone, often uses an eye mask to block out light, and has barred her beagle from the bedroom.

“Having enough sleep keeps me more level. I am calmer and I can move almost seamlessly and effortlessly from one task to another.”

Working tired is like working drunk

Dalitz may have her routine under control, but many busy people act as though sleep is a waste of time and that nipping off a couple of hours each night will make them more productive. They are badly mistaken.

If you manage only five hours of sleep a night (an amount that shift workers average and new parents are lucky to get), you’ll find yourself in the same state of mind as someone with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 per cent – over the legal limit for driving – according to the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health.

Lack of sleep can put a healthy person in a pre-diabetic state. And if you’re a young male, your testosterone will drop to levels of men a decade older.

Veronika Komarenko CA, a manager at Perth accounting firm Cornerstone Partners, has endured a couple of months surviving on five hours of sleep per night, thanks to stress-induced insomnia.

Veronika Komarenko CAVeronika Komarenko CA

“Sleep is as important as exercise and diet. It impacts your productivity at work, your relationship with your employees and clients, as well as personal relationships,” she says.

Komarenko has made some lifestyle changes to improve her sleeping, including moving her gym sessions from after work to early mornings. “It helps me switch off better in the evenings as well as being more energised and productive during the day,” she explains.

If she finds herself lying awake, she clears her mind and tries to think of “absolutely nothing… stopping the chatting brain”.

Komarenko says she gained a real breakthrough from listening to the audio version of The Miracle Morning, a book on improving productivity by Hal Elrod.

It recommends establishing a positive early morning routine, including meditation and visualisation.

“That has improved my life, in general,” she says.

40% don’t get enough sleep

The US National Sleep Foundation recommends adults sleep between seven and nine hours per night. But in Australia, about 12% of people sleep less than 5½ hours.
Some people have disturbed sleep due to disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea (8%), significant insomnia (20%), and restless leg syndrome (18%), reports Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation. Other reasons are lifestyle pressures, including shift work, overwork, and the increased use of the internet and electronic media.

People commonly think we are getting less sleep than our forebears, however sleep experts say it’s not the hours that are decreasing, it’s the quality.

The Sleep Health Foundation estimates about four in 10 people do not have enough quality sleep due to a clinical sleep disorder, work patterns or lifestyle pressures. Given the last CA ANZ Remuneration Survey found that chartered accountants in senior roles can regularly put in 55 hours of work a week, there’s a real risk of them not having enough rest.

Dr Amy Reynolds, a respiratory and sleep scientist and lecturer at Queensland’s CQUniversity, says close to half the population report they’re not getting enough sleep to feel rested, and part of the problem is that their work now follows them home.

“People are working at times when, previously, they might have been sleeping. We are seeing a lot of changes in behaviour around sleep. It is far less of a priority than it should be,” she says. “If you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are not getting enough sleep.”

Reynolds explains that sleep is needed for our brains to consolidate our memories and run through information we have processed throughout the day.

“We know that it’s important for self-recovery and tissue recovery,” she says.

“While we have our eyes closed and we’re lying still, our bodies are doing a lot to keep up functioning.”

When we are sleep-deprived, we get tired, grumpy, we find it hard to remember things and focus on tasks.

Our glucose levels go up, our appetite is affected and we may crave foods that aren’t good for us. We’re also more prone to depression and anxiety.

If people are sleeping less than seven hours per night, they will probably be feeling the impact, says Reynolds.

Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Australia’s Kevin Rudd both claimed to sleep a mere four hours per night, but Reynolds, who has observed many people in her sleep laboratory, says she has never met anyone who could function without impairment on a week of four hours’ sleep per night.

“What we think we can survive on is very different to the reality,” she says.

“What we think we can survive on is very different to reality.”
Dr Amy Reynolds

Reynolds, who also represents the Sleep Health Foundation, has a particular interest in studying circadian rhythm – the internal ‘body clock’ that controls our sleep-wake cycle.

“If our body is in sync, we sleep well at night, we feel better, we feel more well within ourselves,” Reynolds says. And when we tamper with our sleeping and waking times, in effect we are giving ourselves jet lag.

How to train yourself to sleep longer

Sleep disturbances are sometimes unavoidable. Carole Pedder CA, a partner at Withers Tsang in Auckland, spent three years trying to keep going on about four hours’ interrupted sleep each night. She was caring for a son with special needs who struggled to stay asleep for more than a couple of hours. “If I was lucky, he would sleep for four hours straight,” she says.

Carole Pedder CACarole Pedder CA.

Pedder sought help from an adviser and used sleep restriction therapy to help her child and then herself, because her own sleep pattern had been disturbed over the years.

This therapy limits the hours in bed to the actual time that you would spend sleeping, with an aim to decrease the time you lie awake at night. So, if five hours is your average total sleeping time, then five hours is all the time you get between the sheets. You work out what time you want to wake and set your bedtime according to that. If you want to wake at 5.30am, then you go to bed at 12.30am. 

Some experts, however, say that you should not restrict yourself to anything less than 5½ hours in bed, no matter how short your normal sleep time.

Only when you sleep more than 90% of the time that you are in bed do you extend your mattress time by 15 minutes. If you’re asleep less than 80% of the time, you reduce your time in bed by 15 minutes.

Gradually, you should be able to increase the duration of your sleep. Pedder has successfully expanded her bedtime to six hours and says she now feels that is enough.

Sleepwalking into a fatigue crisis

It could be said that our society is “sleepwalking” into a fatigue crisis. Psychologist Rachel Clements, the director of psychological services for the Centre for Corporate Health, consults to organisations on mental health and resilience and says fatigue management will be a “massive” issue in the future.

“People are trying to live their lives pretty much 24/7 – always on,” she says. “People are physically taking work home a lot more, but also psychologically as well.”

Clements says our work days are digitally-powered, which means natural pauses no longer exist. We no longer go to collect our mail in the office, wander off to the fax machine, stand up to speak to a colleague, or physically search for reference material to include in a report. It is all in front of us on a screen.

“We used to have natural respite and natural recovery built into our day, so we didn’t have to be so effortful and so conscious about our recovery,” she says. “The world of work now is so much more fast-paced, we’re taking on a much bigger cognitive load on our prefrontal cortex and we have to be very good at carving out our recovery time.”

All that busy brainwork has an impact on neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are the chemical messengers that regulate the body’s functions and processes, from sleep to metabolism, Clements explains.

“Sleep is more important than ever before,” she says.

Role model for restfulness

Business leaders are becoming more conscious of their responsibility to ensure that work demands are not negatively affecting the wellbeing of employees.

Taking work home definitely has an effect. Of the 22% of people doing work in the hour before bed a few nights of the week, 69% have two or more sleep problems, significantly more than adults who do not work before bed, according to research by the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health.

A quarter of all adults use the internet just before bed on most nights or every night of the week, and have frequent sleep difficulties or daytime impairments.

Geoff Stalley CA, who is the chief growth officer at prison and hospital operator Serco, says he has always worked in organisations with “crunchy” deadlines and has discussions on wellbeing with his teams.

People showing signs of overwork get told to go home, he says, adding that the week before our interview, he had sent a team member back to Scotland for a week to see his family and regain his balance.

“He had gone beyond the point of pushing himself,” Stalley says. “A healthy working team is far better than an overworked unhealthy team.

“A healthy working team is far better than an overworked unhealthy team.”
Geoff Stalley CA

“There is always the exception where you do have to work overnight to get something done but it should be rare. You ought to be able to see where the workload is coming from.”

People become unproductive after 10 hours at work, he says. “So why make people work longer than those hours? You are actually not getting any value or return out of it.”

Sleep tips from people who know

Jen Dalitz CA knows how to stop work travel interfering with her rest:

  • Avoid very early morning and late-night flights.
  • Darken the bedroom.
  • Switch off the phone.

Veronika Komarenko CA found following these four rules helped her overcome stress-induced insomnia:

  • Exercise in the mornings rather than after work.
  • Limit of two coffees per day, and none after 2pm.
  • Have dinner three hours before bedtime to improve digestion.
  • Read a book and meditate before bed.

Carole Pedder CA has this advice for parents and carers whose sleep schedule is disrupted by their loved one’s needs:

  • Get expert help to start sleep restriction therapy.
  • Try some natural supplements and remedies, such as melatonin or essential oils.
  • Tire yourself out with exercise.

Rachel Clements from the Centre for Corporate Health shares six basics of good sleep habits:

  • Put away tech devices (phones, tablets, laptops) 1½ hours before bed.
  • Minimise alcohol consumption.
  • You can recharge during the day with a 20-minute power nap, but it is not a sustainable solution.
  • Try some white noise or the hum of a fan to get to sleep.
  • Do a ‘mind dump’ before bed, writing down all the things you have on your mind.
  • Try some breathing exercises and, if you can’t sleep, get up and only go back to bed when you are tired. You need to catch the ‘wave’ of sleepiness.

What are the costs of fatigue?

  • Four in 10 Australians are not getting the sleep they need.
  • The direct financial cost of this inadequate sleep is estimated at A$26.2 billion per year, due to work absences, impaired performance and accidents.
  • If health and wellbeing costs are considered, the cost rises to A$66.3 billion annually.
  • In the 2017 financial year, inadequate sleep contributed to an estimated 3017 deaths in Australia; about 77% were related to the damaging effect of sleep deprivation on heart health, and 10% related to motor vehicle accidents caused by drowsy driving.
  • In a one-month survey, 17% of people missed work because they were sleepy.
  • Over three months, 29% of adults reported making errors at work due to sleepiness or sleep problems.

Sources: Bedtime Reading: Inquiry into Sleep Health Awareness in Australia, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport, April 2019; 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults, Sleep Health Foundation, 2017.

Read more:

Read the Australian government’s report Bedtime Reading: Inquiry into Sleep Health Awareness in Australia

Read more