Underestimating the importance of sleep when you know you have a busy day coming up usually makes it difficult for you to perform at your best, whatever you do. When you work in an environment where health and safety concerns are prevalent, a lack of sleep can be disastrous.

The 3Rs of sleep

The UKs Sleep Council refers to a 3Rs of sleep that go towards people having a good night’s rest. The 3Rs are –

  • Regular hours
  • Routine
  • Restful environment

Apart from simply recharging your batteries, sleep also provides a number of other critical performance enhancing properties for our bodies. These include aiding immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions.

Why do we sleep?

Although the answer to this question may seem an obvious one, there are numerous theories as to why we sleep –

  • Inactivity theory – One of the earliest theories, this suggests that inactivity at night is an adaptation that served a survival function by keeping organisms out of harm’s way at times when they would be particularly vulnerable. This theory works on the basis that animals that were able to stay still and quiet during these periods of vulnerability had an advantage over other animals that remained active. This inactivity then evolved into the idea of sleep as we know it. The counter-argument to this theory is that it is always safer to remain conscious in order to be able to react to danger giving no great advantage to being asleep.
  • Energy conservation theory – This theory works on the assumption that the primary function of sleep is to reduce an individual’s energy demand and expenditure during part of the day or night, especially at times when it is least efficient to search for food. Both body temperature and caloric demand decrease during sleep, as compared to wakefulness, supporting the proposition that one of the primary functions of sleep is to help organisms conserve their energy resources.
  • Restorative theory – Another theory works on the basis that sleep in some way serves to “restore” what is lost in the body while we are awake. Sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. Research has found that the major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep. Other rejuvenating aspects of sleep are specific to the brain and cognitive function.
  • Brain plasticity theory – This one of the more recent theories about why we sleep and is not yet fully understood. It is widely accepted that sleep plays a critical role in brain development in infants and young children. Infants spend about 13 to 14 hours per day sleeping, and about half of that time is spent in REM sleep, the stage in which most dreams occur. This link seems to be present in adults as well, visible in the effect that sleep deprivation has on people’s ability to learn and perform tasks.

The mechanics of learning and memory

The importance of sleep plays a major part in the mechanics of learning and memory too. Although it may not be surprising to believe that it is more difficult to take in new information following a night of inadequate or disturbed sleep, it may be more surprising to discover that it is just as important to get a good night’s sleep after learning something new in order to process and retain the information that has been learned.

The processes or learning and memory can be broken down into three functions –

  • Acquisition – The introduction of new information into the brain
  • Consolidation – Whereby the memory becomes stable
  • Recall – The ability to access the information once it has been stored

Acquisition and recall occur only during wakefulness, but research suggests that memory consolidation takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. There is currently no consensus about how sleep makes this process possible, but many researchers think that specific characteristics of brainwaves during different stages of sleep are associated with the formation of particular types of memory.

The importance of sleep for health and safety

Taking in to account all that we have talked about in this article and relating it to the world of health and safety highlights many points. Not only is it important to be alert on a day to day basis, it also helps when you’re learning and processing important information to be well rested and refreshed.

Whilst we understand that there are numerous factors that influence our ability to get a good night’s sleep, understanding the potential consequences and effects a lack of sleep may have on our bodies is important. Being aware that you may not be in the right condition to undertake a specific task is a form of maintaining health and safety ideals in itself.