Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing Nuffield Health
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Wellbeing at work: managing the £37 billion sleep epidemic

With modern working patterns shifting, sleep disorders are on the rise and it’s costing business and the economy dearly. Here’s how employers can help stem the problem and support employees to sleep better. 

8th Oct 2019
Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing Nuffield Health
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Young woman lying in bed unable to sleep
iStock/bymuratdeniz

The modern workplace is changing, with the standard 9-5 becoming less common in favour of greater flexibility. While traditional, office-based schedules have their limitations, they do still enable employees to work within their natural sleep/wake cycles. Employees work during the day, enjoy free time in the evenings and sleep at night.

Research shows that nearly a quarter of employees still work night shifts, however, which has led to the rise in a condition called Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD).

It’s estimated up to 30% of shift workers currently suffer from the disorder, which occurs when employees work non-traditional hours - like split or rotating shifts and early mornings – that fall outside standard sleep patterns.

Your body clock helps regulate more than just your sleep and the long-term effects of a misaligned circadian rhythm can pose serious health risks.

Understanding the problem

SWSD occurs because shift patterns typically vary from week-to-week and month-to-month, meaning many employees perhaps end up working a mixture of daytime and nighttime shifts with early starts and late finishes.

When shifts fall outside traditional waking hours, our biological body clocks (or ‘circadian rhythm’) becomes disrupted, resulting in troubled or interrupted sleep. This leaves employees carrying around a ‘sleep debt’, which accumulates to hours of lost rest.

Biologically we are designed to wake with daylight and start to get the urge to sleep when it gets dark. When working shifts interfere with this dropping off becomes a challenge.  

Measuring the effects

Everyone has nights of poor sleep occasionally and feels drained and drowsy the next day. It’s the continuous loss of sleep and inability to achieve consistent sleep patterns, however that wears away at employees’ physical and mental health.

Your body clock helps regulate more than just your sleep and the long-term effects of a misaligned circadian rhythm can pose serious health risks.

Disruption to circadian rhythm has been linked to changes in blood pressure and even certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.

It’s estimated sleep deprivation costs the UK economy £37 billion a year in lost productivity, from employees whose performance is impacted by tiredness and other side-effects of chronic lack of sleep.

The lifestyle impacts of working shifts have also been linked to obesity and heart disease, due to unsocial hours and irregular shifts making it difficult to meet typical mealtimes and grabbing quick and unhealthy options while at work instead.

The demands of working irregular shifts can also impact on employees’ emotional wellbeing.

Living within the circadian rhythm helps manage the chemicals in your body and when this is disturbed it is associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Simply working unsocial hours can make it difficult to spend time with your support network and maintaining relationships with family and friends, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The business impacts

It’s estimated sleep deprivation costs the UK economy £37 billion a year in lost productivity, from employees whose performance is impacted by tiredness and other side-effects of chronic lack of sleep.

In addition to feelings of tiredness, employees are affected by reduced concentration, impaired mobility and decreased reaction times, which can put those working in manual roles especially at risk of accident or injury.

Even after employees achieve full or uninterrupted sleep, performance is still likely to be impaired at work due to the cumulative ‘sleep debt’ they’ve acquired over time.

Employees regularly getting below six hours’ sleep a night are also twice as likely to display absenteeism or presenteeism in their role, meaning they’re more likely to miss work than those getting a full night’s sleep, and even when they’re in the office they’re not performing to their full potential.

Providing the right support

Offering the right support to help staff improve their sleep can be a challenge as it also relies on them taking responsibility for their own sleep hygiene outside of the office to get the best results.

Employers can offer support to shift workers, however, to help them establish long-term, healthier habits.

Many struggles with shift work centre on the lack of routine, meaning employees struggle to establish ‘day and night’ patterns.

Employers should avoid scheduling sporadic day and night shifts, instead adopting a pattern like ‘four on, four off’ to help those working nights establish a natural sleep-wake cycle for working and non-working days.

Employers can play a role in encouraging healthy behaviours, like eating well and introducing exercise into their daily routines. Those with healthier eating habits and who exercise regularly are more likely to achieve a better quality of sleep.

If possible, try partnering with workplace wellbeing experts to offer staff gym membership discounts or organise talks from professional health practitioners like nutritionists to offer advice, either in informal chats or larger seminars.

Encourage good sleep hygiene to employees, focusing on simple habits they can adopt to improve the quality of their sleep.

This may be as simple as helping them establish a bedtime routine to use regardless of their shift, like switching off their phone and reading a book for 30 minutes before bed.

Promote the health benefits of getting a reasonable amount of exposure to natural light every day. This can be a challenge for people working night shifts, who then sleep through the day.

You can suggest simple daily changes, like walking part of their commute or even a short walk around the block before they go to bed.

Employees working shift patterns will find it harder to adjust back into a normal sleep-wake pattern if they’ve spent time without getting any natural daylight, so these small changes could make it easier to deal with rotating shifts.

Finally, provide wellbeing support through external services like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). These offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals who feel their mental health is impacted by poor sleep.

Interested in this topic? Read How a bad night’s sleep can disrupt the workplace

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