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A business person yawns in a meeting. Getting poor quality sleep can hurt your career ... but it doesn’t have to.Christopher Robbins/Getty Images/iStockphoto

This is the sixth of a nine-part print and online series looking at the science of sleep and the vital role of sleep in maintaining overall health.

After nearly three decades as a flight attendant, Sandy Briggs still finds time to work for a winery, swim competitively and spend time with his family. Being highly disciplined about his sleep routine is a big part of how he pulls that off.

Even childhood sleep issues didn't stop Mr. Briggs – now living in the Richmond, B.C., area fishing village of Steveston – from pursuing a career with Air Canada. He completed training in Montreal in 1989 and moved to Toronto, then quickly worked his way up to his current role as in-flight service director.

His career nearly suffered after he spent time in a sleep clinic in the 1990s and learned he had a non-REM sleep issue that caused disrupted shuteye. He was told he might want to "get another line of work."

But that wasn't about to happen for Mr. Briggs – and researchers say sleep issues don't have to compromise career aspirations.

Mr. Briggs remembers his tiring early days as a flight attendant. A few weeks into working standby and other shifts for domestic destinations – common for being low on the seniority list – he asked schedulers for overseas opportunities.

"That's when I ended up going on my first trip to London. I remember looking out the window, and flying by Windsor Castle, and saying, 'This is unbelievable.' A week later, I went back to London … and then went to Frankfurt for the first time, and had a Venice layover – but when you come home from those trips, you're basically exhausted."

Now 48, he has his work and home routines down to a science, allowing him to spend quality time with his wife of 23 years – who also is a flight attendant – and for optimum performance on the job, because "first and foremost, we're safety professionals." Now with seniority, he chooses to work "a bunch of days" in a row – emphasizing trips to Australia and Japan – and then takes several consecutive days off.

"For me, having a routine and sticking to it is really important," says Mr. Briggs, who also has an advanced certificate (level 3) in wine and spirits education, working part time for Perseus Winery in Penticton, B.C., and is a competitive swimmer on the University of British Columbia masters team.

"Wherever I fly, I have my swim stuff ready and make sure I train because it helps get the blood flowing and helps me unwind."

Many people have an idea of what they should do to achieve better sleep – such as exercise, eat well, get into a routine, and turn off electronic devices – but they don't follow suit, says Richard Horner, a University of Toronto professor of medicine and physiology, and a Canada Research Chair in Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology.

Part of the blame falls on our modern 24/7, technologically wired world.

"This is the culture of 'work hard,' and people who sleep are [considered] slackers, but by the same token, when people are working 18 hours straight, they have as much productivity as someone with alcohol levels in their blood beyond the limits to drive," says Dr. Horner, author of The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained.

"You would never champion going into a meeting having performed an all-nighter and then going into a meeting drunk."

Sleep is a time when the brain remains active and gets rewired to prepare us emotionally, mentally and physically for our awake times, says Dr. Horner.

Yet Canadian studies indicate about one in five people has a significant sleep problem, says Atul Khullar, medical director of the Northern Alberta Sleep Clinic, and a consultant with MedSleep, a nationwide network of community sleep clinics.

He adds that while the average working person is "probably sleep-deprived," sleep issues have become an "epidemic" among shift workers – largely because their natural body clocks (circadian rhythms) are thrown off-kilter.

"Definitely the 24/7 world has increased people's pressure to put sleep aside," Dr. Khullar says. "We sleep 45 minutes to an hour less [daily] than we did 50 to 60 years ago."

There are more than 100 sleep disorders on the books; among the common ones are insomnia, which comes in many forms, and obstructive sleep apnea (blockage of the upper airway during sleep, reducing oxygen flow to vital organs), says Dr. Khullar.

Herein lies the vicious lack-of-sleep health-cycle dilemma: While medical problems can cause poor sleep, consistent lack of it over time can also lead to "physical anomalies like heart disease and cancers, and mental issues such as depression, anxiety and fatigue," Dr. Khullar adds.

From the perspective of employers, they are increasingly recognizing that not getting enough shuteye can harm not only workers, but also the bottom line, according to a study of nearly 700 human resources leaders across North America that was released in 2014. The Ceridian LifeWorks survey, called Wake Up Your Workforce, quoted a Harvard University study that said sleep deficiencies cost businesses $63.2-billion (U.S.) annually in lost productivity.

Among positive findings coming out of the study, of the half of HR leaders of companies that offered shift work, one-third indicated they changed schedules to support healthy sleep for employees.

The study also found some companies had:

• Implemented rules for checking electronic devices after work hours.

• Installed "nap rooms" at work.

• Introduced policies to address jet lag among travelling employees.

• Have sleep disorder screening programs.

On the part of problem sleepers, and from most experts' point of view, changing behaviour (such as what Mr. Briggs has done with ensuring he has a routine that works for him) is generally the first approach to attacking sleep issues.

Other strategies run the gamut from drug treatments (including for underlying health issues), to natural sleep support aides such as the supplement melatonin, and devices such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilator, which applies mild air pressure on a continuous basis to keep the airways open during sleep, for people with obstructive sleep apnea.

Tips to get better sleep

Here are some other tips from Dr. Khullar and Dr. Horner for workers to get better quality sleep:

1. Understand your circadian rhythm, and try to plan your work around it. "For example, if you struggle in the morning, you probably shouldn't do the most difficult tasks then," says Dr. Khullar. "Or if you're better in the morning and wear out as the day goes on, maybe you should start with the most difficult task."

2. Spend less time awake in bed. "Go to bed when you're ready, so you don't lie awake and toss and turn, even if it means getting up and doing something boring that will put you back to sleep," says Dr. Khullar.

3. Cut caffeine – a maximum of two caffeinated beverages a day and nothing after 3 p.m.

4. Don't eat a large meal before bedtime, as heartburn will destroy sleep.

5. Use blackout blinds in a room that is a quiet place to sleep; some people may benefit from white noise, a special type of sound signal used to mask background sounds.

6. If napping revives you, try to do it earlier in the day as opposed to closer to bedtime.

7. Find time to exercise. Besides helping contribute to physical and mental health, it seems to increase the deeper waves (restful parts) of sleep.

8. Maintain a healthy body weight – being overweight can hamper sleep, as hormonal issues may come into play.

9. Keep a temperature of between 17 and 21 C in your bedroom. A cooler room has been shown to promote a robust sleep cycle.