How to fight fatigue and manage your energy

30 March 2022

A survey earlier this year for market researcher YouGov came to the conclusion that as many as 13% of Britons live in a state of constant exhaustion, with one in eight adults saying they feel tired all the time and three quarters tired more than half the time.

Some of this may be related to the heightened stresses and strains, especially emotional and mental, we've all experienced over the past two years from the Covid-19 pandemic. Home working blurring the distinction between home and work life, leading many of us to work longer hours, be more sedentary, eat less healthily and take less exercise, which are unlikely to have helped.

In fact, since the start of 2022 there have been reports of HR professionals, accountants, people working in call centres and customer-facing roles, legal professionals and university staff all suffering from fatigue and burnout.

However, as 'sleep evangelist' and scientist Dr Sophie Bostock has highlighted, poor sleep - including insomnia, poor night-time routines and too much 'burning the candle at both ends' - may also play an important role.

How to fight fatigue and manage your energy

'Sleep evangelist' and scientist Dr Sophie Bostock outlines three things you can do that will work to influence and hopefully reduce the fatigue you feel and, in turn, help you sleep better.

General lack of sleep

Firstly, Dr Bostock highlights that one of the reasons many of us are tired is because, in our busy working lives, we're not getting enough sleep each night.

"We're recommended to get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night, but data from large-scale tracking studies suggests that most of us get fewer than seven hours, at least during the week, and then we try and catch up at weekends," she points out.

"For every night of short sleep, we build up a 'sleep debt' so that, by Friday, our reaction time, mood and concentration is starting to suffer. If you find yourself craving a lie-in at the weekend, challenge yourself to experiment with going to bed 15 minutes earlier for two weeks and see if it makes a difference," she adds.

Another way round this, especially if you know you have a period of shorter sleep coming up (for example a night shift, big deadline or if you'll be travelling), is what is called 'sleep banking'.

"You can make yourself more resilient to imminent sleep loss by getting extra sleep in the 10 days or so leading up to the event. It not only makes us less vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation it also helps us to recover more quickly," Dr Bostock advises.

However, while great in theory, in reality this may not always be a practical solution, she concedes. "For many of us, because of life pressures, shift work, children or caring responsibilities we struggle to make time for sleep, let alone bank extra."

To that end, Dr Bostock outlines three things you can do that will work to influence and hopefully reduce the fatigue you feel and, in turn, help you sleep better.

1. Adjust your body clock

As Dr Bostock explains: "Our sleep/wake patterns are heavily influenced by our body clocks. Every cell in our body carries a little molecular clock, which ticks over approximately every 24 hours. Some people, the 'early birds', have internal clocks that run a bit faster and wake them easily at dawn. 'Night owls' have a clock that runs a little slow; they don't get sleepy until after midnight and will struggle to wake up without an alarm before 10am."

Your natural pattern of sleep/wake timing is what is known as your 'chronotype', she explains, and changes as you age. This helps to explain why teenagers and young adults tend to be night owls whereas very young children and their grandparents are more likely to be early birds.

This also means that, if you're a night owl but have to get up early, perhaps for work, it is almost inevitable you will feel tired in the mornings. "This is partly because you will struggle to go to sleep early enough to get enough rest and partly because the melatonin that your brain uses to signal sleep is still hanging around in the morning," says Dr Bostock.

One solution is gradually to work to shift your body clock, she therefore argues. This can be done through a strict combination of light, food, and exercise.

As Dr Bostock advises: "Set your alarm at your earlier waking time every day, including weekends; consistency is key. Eat breakfast within an hour of waking up. Get outside for at least 15 minutes in the mornings and soak up the natural light.

"Do your exercise in the morning. Eat lunch at the same time every day. Avoid eating dinner after 7pm and dim overhead lights an hour before bed. Within two weeks, you will wake up with more energy in the mornings," she adds.

2. Take a nap

Leaders such as Napoleon, Churchill and former US president Lyndon Johnson all swore by the reinvigorating properties of regular short naps during the day – and, as Dr Bostock argues, they could well have been onto something.

"In an ideal world, we'd get all of our sleep in one long bout of seven or more hours. But if this isn't possible or you need to be alert at a time your body clock is telling you to sleep, short naps can be a great way to temporarily reduce drowsiness," she points out.

However, the timing and length of your naps is important. "Naps of as little as ten minutes have been found to improve alertness and concentration for up to two hours; sleep is powerful stuff," Dr Bostock advises.

A slightly longer 20-minute sleep, often known as a 'power nap', can refresh you by allowing you to get some lighter-stage sleep without falling into deeper sleep patterns where you are likely to wake up feeling groggy and confused.

"The best time for a nap for a typical day-worker is usually in the early afternoon. Between about 1pm and 3pm we have a natural lull in our energy levels. A quick nap at this time is unlikely to interfere with night-time sleep," recommends Dr Bostock.

"For night-shift workers, a nap in the early evening, before your evening meal, could help you to stay alert during the shift. A nap could also help at the end of your shift to help you to stay awake on the journey home.

"If you're ever struggling to keep your eyes open during a night shift, and if it is safe and permitted to do so, a brief power nap can also help you to pep up your mood and alertness. Set an alarm and let your colleagues know what you’re up to, just in case you need to return to work in a hurry," she adds.

On a practical note, if you can, try not to nap in a bed, she advises. "You ideally want your bedroom to be associated with deep sleep. So, try and find a comfy chair or day bed where you can curl up for a quick nap. Ear plugs and an eye mask could also help," Dr Bostock recommends.

3. Be careful on caffeine

We all know caffeine is a stimulant and, for many of us, a cup of tea or coffee in the morning is a key ingredient to kick-starting the working day.

In the context of sleep, Dr Bostock points out that caffeine works by blocking the effects of what is known as 'sleep pressure', or the gradual increase in sleepiness that builds up the longer we've been awake. It also temporarily boosts our heart rate and blood pressure.

"There is a lot of individual variation in how quickly caffeine has its effects and how long it stays in the body. It typically takes 20 to 40 minutes for the peak alerting effect to occur. Caffeine consumed six hours before bed can still disrupt sleep quality for some people whereas others might only be affected for three to four hours," she explains.

Caffeine can also be addictive, meaning you can build up a tolerance over time and therefore have to drink more to gain the same stimulative effect. "It also causes dependence so if, for example, you suddenly stop drinking coffee, you can get withdrawal headaches and sleep problems," Dr Bostock cautions.

For this reason, rather than going 'cold turkey' and just cutting caffeine out overnight, it makes more sense gradually to taper things down. Having said that, for most people two to three cups of filter coffee a day are unlikely to cause negative health effects, she points out; it is more the time of day caffeine is consumed that is likely to be the issue.

"From a fatigue management perspective, caffeine is best used strategically rather than routinely. If you default to decaffeinated or caffeine-free drinks, you can avoid building up a tolerance and you'll know that caffeine is available to help boost alertness, if and when you need it," Dr Bostock advises.

In summary, as Dr Bostock points out in conclusion, breaking the cycle of bad sleep habits that can build up over time will often come back to three things: "It is the science of shifting your body clocks, caffeine and napping."

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.