Rest in your waking hours. It’s a term that might seem odd, especially to employers and organisations, but it carries a lot of weight and importance.

When technology landed on the scene almost two decades ago, we were all seduced by it, we thought it was going to make life easier. But the opposite happened; our inboxes started overflowing, and we were bombarded with a relentless flow of data from being constantly online. All of this created mental hyperstimulation 24/7 and as a result, we started to work in a relentlessly linear fashion, with all systems go, followed by completely collapsing at the end of the day.

For many, it was a case of just getting through to the weekend, and then spending the weekend exhausted, ready to repeat again on Monday. Some people even kept going until their holiday, and then as soon as they arrived at their holiday destination, they became sick. Sound familiar?

Suddenly, a duty of care and stress management at work was on the agenda. As a result leaders and managers were being told that they had a responsibility to enable their staff to be well. However, at the same time, there were conflicting demands such as globalisation that meant that everything was speeding up and people had this push to go faster and faster, resulting in even more stress and burnout.

Why sleep isn’t just the answer

Getting a good night’s sleep has enormous health benefits, which is why it’s no wonder we spend a 1/3rd of our lives sleeping. But sleep isn’t the only solution to this global problem of burnout. The real issue is that we’ve habituated to living and working in survival mode, living in the wrong part of our nervous system, because we’re not managing what we’re doing in our waking hours.

What can we do about it?

An important solution lies in rethinking our relationship with rest and recovery and acknowledging that it isn’t enough to wait until the end of the day or our holiday time or even when we retire from working. Intermittent recovery needs to happen every day, during the day, while we work. In other words, we need to come to work and rest.

What do we mean when we say resting?

Our circadian rhythm is our 24hr clock, which is an oscillating cycle, we expend energy, we recover energy, and we sleep. But most importantly, built into our circadian rhythm is a shorter rhythm of about 90-120 minutes. Researchers discovered this rhythm – the Ultradian Rhythm – within the circadian rhythm in the 70s. This is the rhythm or hum of your energy, which continues throughout our waking and sleeping hours. When we sleep, we cycle between light sleep followed by deep restorative sleep. During the day we have periods of alertness and bursts of productivity followed by slower, softer periods in which we might feel less focused and even sleepy.

Why do we experience these oscillations in our energy and focus?

This all comes down to the functioning of the Working Memory.

The Working Memory is a relatively newly evolved part of the frontal lobe, which acts as the reservoir for incoming data traffic. After 90-120 minutes, this reservoir reaches capacity, and we cannot take any further information instantly. If we try to overload after this point, we go into an almost trance-like state called a hypnogogic trance, where we glaze over and cannot take more information in. Many of us overlook the need for rest at this point, because we are so used to this relentlessly linear way of working and will continue to keep going, and going, and going, even though we’re running on empty. Then we will reach for an energy fix, such as coffee or scrolling on our social media hoping for an extra dopamine hit to get the work done.

How can we build recovery and rest into our day?

There is a simple solution to maximising energy and productivity, and then being able to achieve the deep sleep that happens when our brain isn’t fizzing with the information of the day. The world is so complicated, we don’t need to be told massive complex solutions, what we need is to keep it simple. So, every 90-120 minutes, rest. Do something restful, even if it’s just for 3-5 minutes, we might lean back, breathe mindfully and deeply, relax our jaw, neck, shoulders. We might seek recovery by replenishing with a healthy snack or glass of water. We might get up, move, change the focus of our gaze, get back into the body, feel our feet on the ground or walk up and down a flight of stairs. It might sound extreme but when you’ve been sitting for hours, maybe the most restful thing you can do is to do 10 burpees or press ups!

The reason why there is a global epidemic, of not only insomnia but mental health problems, is because we’re over exercising and exhausting the mental muscles of the brain. We need to give them a break, and this is something that athletes in particular are good at, building in intermittent recovery. Research shows that even taking a mindful break of 3-5 minutes, which can be moving, eating or drinking something healthy, (that’s non caffeinated) can increase mental performance and cognitive performance scores, significantly and measurably. Task and word recall also increases.

It’s important to remind yourself (whether an employee or employer) that you’re a human being, not a human doing. Come to work and rest. You’ll not only sleep better at night but be more productive too.

Dr Nerina
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
Psychologist & sleep expert at Dr Nerina | + posts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a renowned physiologist and sleep expert and regularly hosts sleep programmes and workshops. She is the bestselling author of four books about sleep, including Finding Inner Safety - the key to healing, thriving and preventing burnout (Capstone 2022), released 7th April 2022.

For over two decades Dr Nerina has specialised in maximising individual and organisational performance. After completing her post-doctoral training and research into the effects of lifestyle interventions on the alleviation of mental disorders, she spent five years in corporate health screening before studying organisational psychiatry and psychology at Guys Hospital and beginning organisational consultancy, workshop facilitation and coaching.