The Power of Slumber: Can You Sleep Your Way to Better Mental Health?

Key Points:

  1. Quality sleep significantly influences mental wellbeing. Improving sleep can lead to reduced depression, anxiety, stress, and better overall mental health.
  1. Prioritize rest and create clear boundaries between work and personal life to combat the “always-on” culture. This promotes wellbeing and enhances productivity.
  1. To support mental wellness, employers can offer access to care and treatment, sleep hygiene resources, and encourage healthy practices. Individuals should prioritize rest, establish boundaries, and share knowledge about the sleep-mental health connection.

In the fast-paced dance of modern life, where people are overworked, burned out and often struggling with stress, depression, and anxiety, a ray of hope emerges from an often overlooked and underestimated source: our sleep. A groundbreaking and rigorous piece of recent research has delved into the intricacies of the sleep-mental health connection with some relevant implications for modern work and life. Health and wellness impacts organizational functioning and is responsible for the maintenance of consistent performance and, in its absence incurs substantial cost to individuals, organizations themselves, and broader society. Individuals, organizations, and society at large each bare some responsibility for an always-on, “hustle and grind” work culture and we each have a role to play as we work to remediate the damage it has wrought on our health and wellness. All too often in business, the health and wellness , rest and recovery of our people is ignored in the face of legitimate business deadlines and (sometimes fictional) urgency. At least, as we prioritize these human necessities of work and life, we can look to the evidence for ways to best direct our efforts to realize the results that we’re looking to achieve. Fortunately, we don’t have to pave the road ourselves. There’s a growing body of research on this subject that offers up to us some simple recommendations to improve our mental health, enhanced wellbeing, and improved performance.

What does the research look like and what does it have to say?

Alexander Scott, Thomas Webb, Marrissa Martyn-St James, Georgina Rowse, and Scott Weich (2021) performed a rigorous meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (the best sort of research that we can perform) involving interventions to improve sleep that also examined outcomes of symptoms of mental health and illness. This unique approach aimed to investigate whether interventions targeting improved sleep quality could lead to tangible enhancements in mental health. The study synthesized insights from 65 trials, encompassing 72 interventions and a staggering 8608 participants. The results unveiled a cascade of improvements in mental illness, but also, in enhanced mental health. Improved sleep was found to produce moderate improvements in depression, anxiety, stress, and rumination and was even found to yield a small effect on symptoms of positive psychosis (delusions and hallucinations). Notably, enhancing sleep quality exerted a dose response relationship in that greater improvements in sleep quality produced a greater improvement in mental health. And while we’re on the subject of dose response relationships, to put this into terms that better explain the size of the effects that we’re talking about, this research is providing us with some fantastic news as effect sizes of this magnitude rival those of common pharmacological treatments for mental illness with none of the associated side-effects (for example, see Greenberg, Bornstein, Fisher, Zborowski, & Greenberg, 1994).

This showcases the importance of down-time, rest, relaxation, and recovery and giving your people the opportunity to switch off from work and take the time that they need to recover. It showcases that if organizations intend to offer more than lip-service about prioritizing the mental health of their people, that they would do well to prioritize the establishment of solid boundaries between work and other aspects of people’s daily lives and to actively combat an “always-on” work culture. This research shows that we can offer people interventions that enable them to improve their sleep through evidence-based methods and that we can each do our part to provide people the best conditions for the success of these interventions within their daily and working lives.

Take-Aways for You and Your Practice

A harmonious rhythm echoed through the findings—a dose-response relationship. The symphony of sleep and mental health demonstrated that greater strides in improving sleep quality translated to amplified enhancements in mental wellbeing. This revelation deepens our understanding of the interconnectedness of these two domains, underscoring the transformative potential of addressing sleep as a gateway to improved mental health. With this in mind, we offer some calls to actions for leaders, organizations, and others:

Employers and Leaders’ Call to Action:

  • Promoting Sleep Hygiene: Leaders can champion the cause of sleep quality within their organizations. By offering resources such as sleep hygiene classes (classess on healthy sleep habits) and mindfulness resources, leaders can empower employees to enhance their sleep quality.
  • Encouraging Healthy Practices: Advocate for practices known to improve sleep quality, such as exercise, screen-free bedtime routines, and caffeine reduction. Engrain these habits into the organizational culture for a healthier workforce. This may be reflected in organizational investment into employee health and wellness programs or by actively promoting a culture of self-care and wellness by both talking the talk and walking the walk (as an active role-model for people to see and hear). This may help to ensure people don’t feel that they have to always be switched on and plugged into their work at all hours of the day and night.
  • Prioritizing Balance: Embrace work-life balance as a strategic imperative. Allow employees time to rest and rejuvenate, fostering an environment that values wellbeing alongside productivity.

An Organizations’ Pathway to Wellbeing:

Educational Endeavors: Organizations can harness the power of education by providing resources and insights into sleep hygiene. Empowering employees with knowledge can be the first step toward improved sleep quality. If you don’t feel that this is best done by your organization, then you can always try to provide people with the support and resources to access trained experts in this space whether they be psychologists, sleep specialists, or other informed medical practitioners.

Incorporating Interventions: Offer interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) and mindfulness-based stress reduction as both have demonstrated efficacy in helping people to improve their sleep.

Embracing Flexibility: Extend the hand of support by introducing flexible work schedules and designated spaces for rest. These steps can amplify the accessibility of quality sleep, nurturing a well-rested workforce. By allowing people to work remotely, you’re also offering people the opportunity to take advantage of their own available spaces and equipment for rest and recovery – something that typical offices cannot hope to provide their people with to the same standard and quality found in the comfort of your people’s own homes.

A Call to Other Individuals:

Prioritizing Your Own Rest and Recovery and Building Healthy Boundaries: Prioritizing your own rest and recovery and building healthy boundaries in a work context is essential. It prevents burnout, maintains work-life balance, and boosts overall productivity and wellbeing. By taking care of yourself and setting clear limits, you ensure long-term success in your professional life. This may entail prioritizing talking about your boundaries with others and laying the foundational ground-rules and expectations that they need to known while working with you.

  • Bedtime Rituals: Create a calming bedtime routine, complete with a regular sleep schedule and screen-free time before sleep. Showering/bathing just prior to bed can help, as can lowering your thermostat to provide a cool environment. These small steps can pave the way to better sleep quality.
  • Spreading Awareness: Be a beacon of awareness, highlighting the intricate dance between sleep and mental health. Educate peers about the transformative potential of improved sleep quality.
  • Advocacy for Change: Raise your voice for change within your organization. Advocate for policies that emphasize employee wellbeing, such as flexible work hours and designated spaces for relaxation.

The research by Scott and colleagues provides a surprisingly effective and actionable path to improved mental wellness. If organizations and their leaders are serious in their claims to be prioritizing mental wellness, it’s quite clear that they need to allow their people time to rest and recover. With each night’s rest, we can move closer to a world where the power of slumber transforms our waking and working lives.

Trustworthiness score:

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the rapid evidence assessment we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We can conclude the meta-analysis we covered in this evidence-based summary is both extremely rigorous and highly trustworthy (95%).

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Greenberg, R. P., Bornstein, R. F., Zborowski, M. J., Fisher, S., & Greenberg, M. D. (1994). A meta-analysis of fluoxetine outcome in the treatment of depression. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 182(10), 547–551.

Scott, A. J., Webb, T. L., Martyn-St James, M., Rowse, G., & Weich, S. (2021). Improving sleep quality leads to better mental health: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 60, 101556.

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