Post-Lockdown Reopening – How To Get Your Sleep Patterns Back On Track

After months of life away from bar work most people’s sleep pattern will have changed, how important is it to get them back on track and how do you do it?

Before the pandemic I was juggling my BarLifeUK work with working behind a bar, two jobs with very different sleep patterns. It wasn’t until that three year period ended that I realised just how much of an effect that messing of my sleep had affected me. Whether you are back at work this moth or next there are going to be many challenges, a lot of which will be unknown until they happen, sort your sleep patterns out in advance and you will be in a substantially better position to deal with them. Trust me.

The importance of sleep has been something that the industry has been made aware of over the last few years so we asked two of the leading experts on this subject in hospitality to share their thoughts and tips to get you back on track. Elliot Ball from Cocktail Trading Company and Tim Etherington-Judge from Healthy Hospo were kind enough to spare some time for us.

BarLifeUK: As an industry we are more aware of good sleep being beneficial than ever before but just to drive the point home, in a nutshell why is it so key?

Elliot Ball: Sleep is the breath between actions/words, the break between sets, and many other metaphors. The important thing is not to view it as downtime, a period of inactivity – it is an extremely active participant in your mind and life. Bad sleep makes you a worse version of yourself in every way, and bad sleep in the long run has the especially insidious effect of redefining your standards. Sleep is essential to learning (including muscle memory), is essential to good health (from immune system to cancer resilience), and is one of the simplest ways to just be happy on a hormonal level.

Not all 8 hours sleep are the same

Reiterating the health thing, there is something interesting within meta-analyses in medicine; messing with the criterion of sleep diet plays havoc with correlations in research, and, scarily, there is mounting belief that a host of severe (but quite common) neuro-degenerative disorders are simply the expression of long-term sleep deprivation, and that many of the issues associated with getting older are simply a function of our sleep efficiency decreasing as we age. Mad.

If there was a drug that could deliver the effects of good sleep, it would start a pharmaceutical war.

Tim Etherington-Judge: Sleep is our natural recovery process, common to all animals that we’ve studied. It’s how our brains flush out toxic chemicals that build up over the day, our muscles rebuild themselves after a strenuous workout, our hearts lower blood pressure and new memories and learnings are formed. And science has shown that a lack of sleep can, and will, kill.

BLUK: People who have been on furlough will have moved into different sleep patterns than they previously had, how important is it to get your sleep patterns back on track and how difficult is it to get the body to do so?

TEJ: I’m not going to sugar coat this, it’s going to be tough. For most of the past year we’ve lived the lives of day walkers, living in closer harmony with our circadian rhythm (the bodies internal clock) and, hopefully, getting much better sleep than when we’re working the chaotic shift patterns that bars demand. It’s going to be a shock to the system to get back to working nights, losing the consistency of sleep patterns, and rediscovering just how stressful life behind the bar can be.

As the industry reopens we have an opportunity to address some of the issues that plagued our industry in the time BC (Before Covid), with sleep being a key one. For many it will be an effect similar to jetlag, where sleep patterns are disrupted and it has a knock-on impact on the body and mind. Remember that losing just 1 hour of sleep increases rates of heart attack, impairs driving, and heightens risk of cancer.

EB: The operative phrase is not so much ‘back on track’ as ‘on track’. It’s unlikely to be the case for everyone, but the last year may well have given many of us an insight into what our personal sleep rhythms are – when we typically feel sleepy, when we would usually wake without an alarm, how long we’d usually sleep for, etc; humanity has evolved in such a way that there really isn’t just one standard rhythm there (though the 7/8 hours optimal is right 99% of the time).

It’s one of the great injustices of the modern work age that night-owls are branded lazy for wanting to sleep in, proceed to ritually haul themselves out of bed to be sluggish around the workplace (while their morning lark pals snap up the promotions) before eventually waking up for the last 2 hours of the work day, and then later barely be able to sleep effectively before 2 – the cycle continues.

But, like with any injustice, it’s fertile soil for progress – plenty of tech firms have restructured their teams/days in recognition of different sleep cycles. This is obviously pleasing on a moral level, but it’s also deeply efficient – their workforce are more alert, happier, and (especially if their competitors don’t offer the same policy) more likely to stick around. In an industry like hospitality which fundamentally operates around the clock, there are clear opportunities here.

You don’t have to return to whatever your hours were before – with this enormous time-out, you might have had the opportunity for overview and might decide to make some changes. A crucial thing, though, is to recognise that change takes time, and it’s not all that pleasant. I’m a decent case-study here; chronic insomnia from about 15 led to me having a pretty nihilistic view of sleep, which, when I was working full-time in bars alongside my university degree, just felt pretty normal. Then I moved to London, did a few years of the work-hard-play-hard stereotype, before meeting Andy and Olly and embarking on CTC – at no point did I have a reasonable opportunity (and particularly in the last 7 years, the possibility) to question my relationship with sleep.

Too much sleep can make you act like a right princess

I had a few 2020 objectives mostly avoiding dancing out of the way of bankruptcy, but a sleep audit was top of the list outside of immediate threats – possibly just paranoia, but I’d begun to notice memory lapses and knew an opportunity like this would (hopefully) not come about again. I almost gave myself the easy way out – nearly bailed after forcing myself to sleep 8 hours a night for a week or two, and being sleepier and generally pissed off at it all. What saved me from the dangerously appealing notion of ‘ah, I had it right to begin with, gonna head back to that’ was Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, and particularly its breakdown of different sleep stages.

Crucially, sleep isn’t just one big block of good stuff – we all know about REM, etc, but it’s one of many stages, and deciding to sleep more (or less) doesn’t just handily space these out evenly. By forcing myself to sleep longer each night, I was stretching out the final stage of sleep, which basically just made me groggy, but as my brain learned to take advantage of the time, other stages that had been chronically negated and compressed, were able to space themselves out a bit. I’m not going to round this off with some ‘look at me now, I’m so clever and even lost weight’ bullshit – I don’t need to evangelise – the point is that changing (or perhaps fixing) your relationship with sleep isn’t that quick a process – it’ll require planning and commitment, but it has the potential to put a buff on literally everything else that you do. Logically, I’d say give it a try.

But yes, I fully recognise that most of us are going to be so desperate to return to work and stability that this is far down our list of priorities. Try anyway?

BLUK: What can people do to help prepare themselves for the change in their sleep patterns, any tips that can people can use?

EB: As above, deciding to do it and making space is an important step. Changing your view of sleep to a necessary, active process that directly affects your competence and happiness in the short- and long-term is also a good idea. Equally, communicating on it is important – it’s one thing for you to no longer treat sleep as the bottom of the priority list and just what you do at the end of the day, but another thing entirely to communicate those priorities to others in your life so that they can help.

So here’s an ideal scenario that probably isn’t realistic for most people, but any progress in its general direction is bound to improve lives:

Step 1 – Go to bed without your phone when you feel sleepy, wake up without an alarm, get up when you wake up. No reading messages in the night, no scrolling before/after you sleep.
Step 2 – Once you’ve got a consistent idea of your usual sleep rhythms, look at ways of interfacing these with your social and work lives.
Step 3 – Whoever is in control of your rota, try to approach them. Obviously they might not be either free or just sufficiently empathetic to give a shit – I’ll leave that up to you. But if I had a member of my team say to me ‘look, I’m here to work and to learn – I’ll do the hours you give me. However, I’ve learned that my typical sleep hours are this and I legitimately believe that I’ll be vastly more useful to you if they can be compatible with the schedule. If it adds to your workload in organising the rota, I apologise and understand if it’s too much of a challenge, but if you do this for me, you’ll have a very strong team member on your hands.’… If that happened, I’d frankly be excited.
Step 4 – Do not take the piss. If you make commitments from your work life to boost your sleep life, don’t sell those out to your social life. If that same team member gave me the chat from above and I moved things around so that they were home by midnight each night and I caught them heading to Callooh after each time, it would obviously piss me off. Occasional stuff – sure. But don’t expect others to make room for lifestyle changes for you if you’re not willing to respect them (the changes and the people!)

Unfortunately, the stigma of sleep equating to laziness // lack of willpower, drive or energy, will be around a while, so it’s unrealistic to just expect everyone to go along with it. It is, however, worth a try.

TEJ: The first thing that I always recommend is to make sleep a priority. Remember that sleep is more important than Facebook, Netflix, Reddit or Twitch, and you need to build around 8 hours of your day to it.

Make your bedroom a tech free zone wherever possible. If you live in shared accommodation, turn your phone off at night and put it out of reach in a drawer, in the wardrobe, anywhere that it’s out of sight and mind.

Create a bedtime ritual! You probably had one as a child where your parents got you ready for bed, changing into pyjamas, brushing your teeth, a bedtime story. Resist the temptation to open your laptop after work and unwind the mind as you get ready for sleep. Household chores, reading a fiction book, meditation, perhaps a bit of journaling, some caffeine free tea, or a hot shower to clean off the grime of your shift can all work wonders.

And obviously, check out the Healthy Hospo app where we’ve got a sleep lesson written by elite sleep coach Nick Littlehales, who’s been the sleep coach for the world’s top athletes including Man Utd, Man City, the British Olympic Team, and Team Sky (Ineos).

Thank you to Elliot and Tim, we hope their thoughts will help you get ready for the onslaught that is to come. If you are reading this on your phone in your bed then put it away, you naughty pickle. If you are not and would like to know about sleep Elliot has kindly written us a fantastic piece comparing a healthy sleep cycle and a good pair of boots full of fascinating information.

Elliot Ball – Sleepy Boots

Long story short, I think of a healthy sleep cycle like a good pair of boots. You can’t really change your size, but how you treat the boots (and thus the extent to which they benefit you in return) and whether or not they’re appropriate to your surroundings are both fully in your control with a bit of planning. We’ve all left the house with the wrong shoes and been stuck with them for the day, just as we’ve all grossly miscalculated our sleep requirements in both the immediate and long-term.

So, some questions to consider with application to both footwear and sleep:

What do you plan to do that day?

Gonna be out on your feet all day? Walking boots. Same answer but with occasional jogs? Probably not the boots.

Having a sleep cycle that leaves you ready for bed halfway through your shift, or, as is more common, barely awake for the first half of it (or, worse, the drive to work etc) clearly isn’t a great idea. Lots of us get stuck in this pattern and it is, for many, a lifetime’s work to break the cycle. However, we’re the first generation in the modern age to have been given the set of circumstances that is COVID. Ask yourself what your normal sleep routine is – you don’t need a diary or anything, but think about when you usually get sleepy and when you’d typically wake up without an alarm. Over the last year, you’ve probably collected some useful data there.

We do all have a natural sleep cycle – we’ve evolved for them to have variation, too – morning larks, night owls and everything in between. Having a healthy relationship with your work(place) should definitely include respecting your own personal sleep cycle. You can’t get it right every time, but ignoring your natural rhythms is clearly a bad start to anything.

What measures do you need to take towards upkeep?

Take care of your shoes and they take care of you. I’m not saying you can’t stay out late – I’d be an utter hypocrite – I’m saying that blindness or denial towards consequence is the root of bad decision-making. Staying out drinking because ‘you’ll be fine, suck it up’ the next day is like putting on weight from eating food just because it’s free – you can be in whatever shape you want, but if you ignore the potential for suboptimal outcomes, you’ll probably end up surprised. Denying the existence of consequences is totally different to recognising the consequences and deciding to keep doing whatever anyway.

Our industry is beleaguered by the ‘work hard, play hard’ stereotype – aspiring towards Marco Pierre-White // Jordan Belfort bullshit is lame AF. Wanna stay out every night for the pure lols? Fine. See the benefit of barfly-ing to network? A-OK. Doing it as part of the norm because #Rockstar? Nah.

For every champion ‘high-functioning alcoholic’, there’s a world in which the same person would have been smarter, quicker, fresher and probably better-looking without torturing their brains with sleep deprivation. Deep down, every single one of us, including the dude typing right now, believes they are above average, an outlier, can push through on heightened willpower, etc. For one, that’s not the way bell curves work, and for two, purely factually, several of the stages in sleep are essential to the formation of memory/habit from working memory. Any kind of learning, from product knowledge to the muscle memory in quick, accurate jigger usage, requires this stage of memory encoding. Put simply, sleep badly and you don’t learn stuff, including the physical bits.

Do those shoes actually fit you, or do you just really like them?

Part of the issue with the whole ‘work-life balance’ thing is that they compete for time, with sleep caught in the middle. We’re thrown endless advertisements for professional and personal development, so we want to work hard and enjoy ourselves, develop meaningful relationships and generally invest in fun and happiness. But in the middle of these turfs lies the no-mans-land of sleep, and both sides eat into it. While this is clearly a very normal thing, and plenty of circumstances warrant it, if you find yourself in that situation for extended periods, your sleep cycle is not a good fit for your life, and something should probably change.

The reason I encourage conscious investigation here is that we’re terrible judges of our own sleep. An oft-quoted study involved setting participants up to have either a) standard (their own choosing) sleep hours, b) enforced 8 hours a night, c) enforced 6, d) 4, and, just for the lolz apparently, e) a single 48 hour sleep deprivation period. Each day, participants would complete a battery of verbal and non-verbal tests, and the results, by and large, wouldn’t surprise you, so I won’t waste our time. The horrifyingly noteworthy finding was that those people in the 4-hour group finished up the two week period in the belief that, though it was tough at first, it’s actually fine – they feel great and plan to only get four hours each night from here on in. However, their test scores were equivalent to the guys who hadn’t slept in two days. They were shadows of themselves in terms of competence, and legitimately planning to stay that way.

‘Burning the candle at both ends’, an especially appropriate saying here, is illogical in the long-term; your performance in all parts of your life (including your happiness) will tumble – if you have the opportunity to evaluate this, you should. We should also probably talk booze – anyone who’s been under general anaesthetic can tell you that being asleep and being unconscious are not equivalent – regardless of the procedure, you don’t wake up refreshed, and don’t get me started on sleeping pills – they’re one of the most damaging pharmaceutical products around, basically Pyrrhic victories by the gram.

Frankly, alcohol’s effect on sleep efficacy seems downright unfair – a unit of alcohol damages 30-60 minutes of sleep – a glass of wine before bed basically knocks an hour of good sleep off, which seems pretty heavy-handed. The crucial thing, as I’ve said, is to be aware of this – factor it into your decision-making and don’t go assuming that there are no costs beyond the financial to that last shot on the way out. You are choosing to remember less of the things you’ve learned that day and to be less sharp tomorrow – have no illusions.