Support the Guardian

Available for everyone, funded by readers

Managing sleep and fatigue

Managing sleep and fatigue

Dr Kelly Dale, managing director of Healthy Lifestyle NZ, is passionate about the value of sleep, with her research published in many top international medical journals.

Through Healthy Lifestyle NZ, Dr Dale has helped numerous workplaces and organisations, including Dairy NZ, look at ways to aid workers in improving sleep quality and managing fatigue.

Her recent study with Dairy NZ, with funding from ACC, has focussed on the changing sleep patterns in dairy farmers using wearable sleep trackers, particularly during and after calving.

"We have been capturing that data for quite a few years now, and we focused primarily on calving because we knew that was a particularly risky kind of period," Dale says.

"And, no surprise, we saw that farmers were getting insufficient sleep during calving."

Sleep deprivation worsened as calving progressed, with workers unable to offset the lack of sleep by going to bed early enough to counteract the early starts due to family commitments and the need to have 'downtime' before bed.

One of our earlier studies showed that post-calving, workers were not experiencing a recovery period when they caught up on the loss of sleep but instead moved on to other time-consuming jobs on-farm that had possibly taken a backseat during calving.

"They weren't suddenly getting extra sleep and restoring themselves.

"They were just on to the next task, which meant they were still getting insufficient sleep."

The results of the study, which are soon to be published, are particularly valuable given that even in the international arena there are no studies that look at what sleep looks like for farmers, Dale said.

The research is important because studies have shown that sleep deprivation significantly impacts mental health and cognitive ability, including memory, reaction time and coordination, potentially increasing the incidence of workplace accidents and injuries.

The time for complete recovery from sleep deprivation proved to be longer than most people would anticipate.

"The studies show that even after four nights of good sleep, people still hadn't fully recovered.

"There's this belief that you can push yourself, and then you might have a day or two off and have a really long sleep, and that will set you up for the week to go again.

"But actually, it's potentially up to seven days before a person can fully recover from being in sleep debt."

Improving sleep quality

In busy periods, such as calving, where sleep deprivation is difficult to avoid, Dale says to focus on making sure the sleep you do get is good quality.

Sleep apnoea is one area Dale suggests looking at, with approximately 80% per cent of people suffering from the condition undiagnosed and, therefore, not getting treatment.

Those suffering from sleep apnoea have poor sleep quality, leaving them at risk of fatigue and impairment. Put simply, if you snore and don’t feel as refreshed as you think you should when you wake up.

"If someone notices their partner pauses in their breathing while asleep or wakes up choking or gasping, they potentially have a sleep condition and need to see someone about that.

"Your GP would be their first port of call, and they can guide them on whether to go and have a sleep test."

While it's tempting to have a wine or beer at the end of the day to unwind, to maximise sleep quality, Dale recommends avoiding alcohol, which can increase snoring, worsens apnoea and raises stress hormones.

"It leads to sleep fragmentation, which is essentially disrupted sleep.

"So if you are going through a period where you know you aren't going to get enough sleep, definitely lay off the alcohol so you can maximise the sleep you do get."

While it can be difficult to find the time, Dale said a quick nap of around 15-20 minutes at lunchtime, for example, can help with reaction time, coordination and mental alertness.

"15-20 minutes is ideal because once you go over that, into half an hour, you start going into a deep sleep."

This can lead to a feeling of grogginess, known as sleep inertia.

Dale also recommends staying hydrated and not relying on sugar, caffeine or energy drinks to get through the day, which can worsen fatigue through blood sugar and caffeine highs and lows.

While not as detrimental as once thought, screen time before bed is another factor due to the dopamine hit people get from scrolling and sensitivity to light.

However, sunlight first thing in the morning can help set us up for a night of good sleep. The morning sunlight turns over a sand clock in our brains, starting a countdown for sleep time.

"When we get that bright light exposure in the morning, it's like flipping that clock and creating a countdown to when we initiate sleep.

"We know from studies that it is about 16 hours.

"So if we are getting that nice bright sunlight exposure first thing in the morning, we are turning over the clock and helping sleep at the other end of the day," Dale said.

This is easy in summer when Dale recommends heading outside first thing in the morning and getting exposure to natural light.

Winter can be more difficult, with some people using light therapy glasses to mimic what the sun does.

A hot shower an hour before bed can also be beneficial, supercharging what melatonin does, which is essentially helping our core body temperature to drop in preparation for sleep.

So why is sleep so important?

Apart from increasing our chances of injury and accident in the workplace, if we aren't getting enough sleep, our mental and physical well-being can be affected, Dale said.

"Sleep deprivation increases our risk of depression and anxiety.

"It also makes us much more likely to get colds and flu and increases our risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

"We are also learning more about the relationship between lack of sleep and Alzheimer's.

"It touches on every aspect of our lives, it's so important for everything, yet it's something we sacrifice."

If you or your workplace would like support with healthier sleep, you can email Dr Dale directly at [email protected]

by Claire Inkson