In order to maintain a high level of alertness and performance, we are best suited to being awake for no more than about 16 hours following 8 hours of good quality sleep, although these values can differ slightly among individuals. However, you cannot ‘train’ yourself to work for longer or to need less sleep. Your ‘sleep need’ (between 7 and 9h every night for 90% of people) is genetically set (just like your height), so you are not able to change it. We can cope with less sleep, but that is all it is – coping, not thriving.
After being awake for 19 hours, even with 8 hours of good quality sleep beforehand, our reaction times are around 30% slower than when we are fully rested. The increased sleepiness from being awake all day and the slower reactions are manageable if we are at home and able to unwind and switch off from work at the end of our working day. However, if we are making important decisions, or need to leave the house and drive a car, for example, our degraded performance may become problematic.
If you have not been able to get as much sleep as you might need, or are awake when you would normally be asleep, reduced performance and longer reaction times occur more quickly.
What can I do about it?
Sleep: In order to maximise the length of your period of ‘useful wakefulness’, try and make sure you sleep as much as you need (between 7-9 hours for most people) as often as possible
Set a routine: Try to stick to your ‘normal’ work hours, get up and ready for work at the same time each day, just as you would if travelling to the office. Take advantage of the time saved on your commute and use it for something non-work-related; try to avoid the temptation of using your commute time as extra work time. Even on cold, dark January mornings, a walk before work can help set you up for the day and provides mental health benefits. For those juggling working from home with home-schooling children, a routine is especially important. For advice on how to manage homeworking whilst home-schooling see https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-working-home-parents-children-tips-routine-a9414261.html and https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/support-for-parents/coronavirus-parents-working-from-home/
Create a workspace at home: Allocate a space at home for work, if possible, somewhere quiet and away from distractions and ideally with natural light. Using a desk or table make your workspace as comfortable as possible, if you don’t have an adjustable chair try using cushions to support your back, and a box as a footrest can also help.
Take breaks: During long workdays, planning and taking regular breaks away from your desk will help slow reductions in your performance and help manage feelings of stress. Take regular screen breaks, just 5 to 10 minutes away from your screen, doing something different, will help you feel more focused and can help productivity. Take a lunch break and if possible, use this time to get some exercise and natural light, and refuel with food and water. Light stretching or a 10-minute home work-out helps maintain energy levels and reduces stiffness caused by lack of movement.
Connect with others: Make use of technology to stay connected with friends, family and colleagues. In your working hours try phoning or using online video calls to speak with colleagues rather than just using email.
Be aware of the early warning signs of reduced alertness: the longer we are awake, the more performance levels decline. It’s important to be aware of the early warning signs that you need rest. Problems with concentration, maintaining focus, and visible signs, such as yawning, should not be ignored: they are an early warning that it is time to take a break.
Limit out-of-hours working: As lowered performance in office workers decreases productivity, and out-of-hours working can interrupt sleep, enact a ‘no contact’ policy, turn off work emails and close the door on your home office (or move your laptop from view).