To end Mental Health Awareness week we ask Maria Brosnan, Founder of Pursuit Wellbeing and author of The Pursuit of Sleep for Teachers how sleep can contribute to positive wellbeing.

As an educational leadership and wellbeing specialist, I work closely alongside teachers and school leaders. Over time, I have built up a clear picture of how difficult it can be to switch off, and the daily uphill struggle to achieve a good work life balance.  And one of the main culprits?

Poor sleep.

I am convinced that poor sleep is at the core of a wellbeing crisis for our educators.

Let me explain.

Firstly, the research is hard to ignore.

The Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020 by the Education Support Partnership, revealed that 52 percent of teachers have reported difficulty sleeping during the past year. That’s more than half of our teachers are failing to get a good night’s sleep.

Secondly, science clearly links sleep with our overall wellbeing.

Stress stops us from sleeping well; lack of sleep stops our bodies from efficiently repairing themselves; and this, in turn, leads to a feeling of being rundown, an increase in health issues, and the commonly experienced school holiday ‘collapse’, as a cold, flu, or exhaustion hits.

For us to experience the physiological response to stress in our bodies, we go through a process:

  1. First, there needs to be a stressor. This is not difficult to imagine if you are an education professional; perhaps an angry parent, an injured child, a difficult meeting, a nasty email, a tech issue, a playground fight, or another Covid risk assessment.
  2. Next, we respond to the stressor. Sometimes this is automatic and beyond our conscious control, but there are times when we get to choose how we respond to the stressful experience. There is a moment, albeit small, in which we have the power to act. In this split second, we can pause and think before we respond; to ‘self-regulate'. This is our ‘response-ability'. In the midst of the difficult meeting; as the computer crashes again, how do I respond? Even one conscious deep breath to pause can help.
  3. Finally, comes our physiological response. Depending on our response to the stressor, we either produce the biochemicals of stress in our body and experience the ‘stress response’ as a result, or we don’t. 

When we trigger the stress response, it takes our bodies out of a state of natural balance  (known as ‘homeostasis’) and into a state of ‘dysregulation’. Part of this physiological response, which causes dysregulation, is the release of around 1300 biochemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to help us to respond to the stressor.

Many of these biochemicals can linger in our bodies for eight hours or more, and so can still be in our systems at bedtime, acting like a ‘pint of espresso’ in our bodies, making sleep difficult even if we’re exhausted. So even a stressor much earlier in the day can affect our sleep.

Our bodies are naturally highly efficient at returning to balance. But when stress becomes repeated, or chronic, as it often is in the life of teachers, with un-ending demands on time and resources, it becomes harder for the body to get back to homeostasis.

With the experience of regular stress, poor sleep can become not just a one-off event, but a nightly battle. The Guardian reported a few years ago that the average teacher was only getting 6 hours of sleep per night; most of us need 7-9 hours to function well.

Sleep is crucial to wellbeing.

And while it might seem like a quick-fix to sleep is far away, the good news is that small, seemingly insignificant steps can pave the way for a better night’s sleep.

I believe the most important step in dealing with stress, is Step 2, above: managing our response to stressors, thereby reducing the number of times we trigger the physiological stress response.

So yes, it’s worth taking a moment to take a breath or count to ten before responding to the nasty email or tweet!

Secondly, build in small daily habits or rituals you enjoy, knowing that they are serving to reduce the number of times you release the biochemistry of stress. For example:

  • Practice 5 minutes of mindlfulness in the morning or evening before bed
  • Journal out any frustrations to clear your head before sleep
  • Build exercise into your routine, to help discharge any excess stress biochemicals, to name a simple few.

Over time these small steps lead to a calmer day-to-day life, better sleep, healthier bodies, and vastly improved wellbeing.

We need to address the problem, now. So, take this opportunity to prioritise sleep and encourage your colleagues to do the same. And notice the benefits to your health and wellbeing. 

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Find out more about the science behind sleep and wellbeing, and the 95 tips for better sleep, in Maria’s book, The Pursuit of Sleep. pursuitwellbeing.com/sleep

References:

Education Support, Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020,
https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/resources/research-reports/teacher-wellbeing-index-2020

The Guardian, The Teacher’s guide to sleep and why it matters (11th November 2014), https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/nov/11/good-night-teacher-guide-sleep