After years of progress and incredible breakthroughs in all aspects of how the human body works, there are still many things to be discovered. Especially about the brain. One of these things, which I always found fascinating — and a little bit humorous — is why yawning is contagious. We definitely know it is, but nobody knows why. Yet.

What we do know is that, when yawning the brain signals it needs more Oxygen than it gets through normal breathing. This is most often a sign that the body is tired and could use some rest. In all other cases, someone nearby does it first and we simply can’t help it.

What we also know about yawning is that it makes us all look a little bit silly. Just retrieve your mental picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Only imagine him yawning. You’re no longer impressed by his muscles; you’re empathizing with the guy for looking a little silly while his brain is getting that extra Oxygen it craves.

via GIPHY

You yawned, didn’t you? I did too.

But let’s go back a little to that part of yawning and tiredness. When people don’t get enough sleep they’re not functioning at full potential:

  • They get cranky easily.
  • They have a harder time identifying others’ emotions so their communication skills are affected.
  • They have less patience and get involved in more arguments.
  • They lose motivation to learn anything new.
  • They don’t necessarily have the best or most innovative ideas.
  • Their critical thinking is affected as well, so they don’t always find the best solution to a problem.

All of these things happen regardless to where people are or what they do. And since adults spend most of their time in a day at work… companies should not turn a blind eye to yawning on the premises. Because a yawn is the first sign someone is not getting the right amount of sleep.

The link between quality of sleep and personal excellence

When most people think of career success, they think of habits such as creativity, initiative, and ambition. However, one of the biggest keys to success is often overlooked — getting a good night’s sleep. Aside from traits such as dedication, passion, and persistence, a good night’s sleep is also important to achieve success in our lives every day.

Getting enough sleep is essential in order to be our most productive selves.

There are studies after studies after studies that show a clear connection between sleep deprivation and poor work performance and poor life quality. There are also studies that clearly show the reverse is true as well: poor job satisfaction leads to low-quality sleep. Yes, that’s a vicious circle.

Research from Harvard University has estimated that, for the average U.S. worker, insomnia results in the loss of approximately 11.3 days of productivity each year, representing a total loss nationally of about $63.2 billion.

According to the most recent Sleep in America Poll by National Sleep Foundation, 65% of American adults think that a good night’s sleep contributes to the next day’s effectiveness. However, only 10% of people prioritize it over other aspects of daily living. This happens because it’s easy to fall into the vicious circle that happens between stress and lack of sleep.

When we don’t sleep enough we can’t fully concentrate at work. But deadlines don’t care about that. So we work overtime even though our brain is not in the right place, or take work home to finish up tasks. By not being able to recharge after a work day (because the work day is always on) we get more stressed and we go to sleep later than usual, we have trouble falling asleep and we have to get up earlier than our body needs. Then we can’t again focus at work, can’t again get the right amount of sleep, and so on, and so forth.

The good news is that this vicious circle can — and must be — broken if we want to reach personal excellence.

Helping employees sleep

There are a number of things companies can do to support employees to get enough sleep, even though sleep is an activity that mostly happens outside the premises and the working hours, and is not easily affected by work interventions. But the cost of lack of sleep is too important for any organization to ignore given the direct negative effects it has on employee performance, engagement, learning and professional growth.

From reviewing company policies to include the normality of sleep in them, designing digital wellness coaching programs for employees, to include quiet spaces and napping pods for people to use during the work day, the options are many. But the most basic one is to educate everyone on the impact of sleep deprivation at work.

In the end I’ll leave you with the wise words of Ariana Huffington, author of Sleep Revolution:

These two threads that run through our life—one pulling us into the world to achieve and make things happen, the other pulling us back from the world to nourish and replenish ourselves—can seem at odds, but in fact they reinforce each other.

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