We all know how it feels to come into work after a poor night’s sleep; it’s hard to think clearly, we’re slow to respond to things and we lack creative energy. What usually results is a slow and unproductive day and we only get back to normal once we’ve slept well again. However there are large numbers of employees whose problems extend far beyond the loss of a single night’s sleep. In fact 25% of the UK population suffer some form of sleep disorder that creates problems for them most of the time. March is “National Bed Month”, an annual campaign to raise awareness of the need for high quality sleep. It’s been running since 1990 but only now are we beginning to really understand the implications of poor sleep for employees at home and at work
Investigating sleep deprivation has been a boom area of research in the last 10 years. What has become clear is that the scale of the problem and its impact on individuals, on businesses and on the wider economy, is much greater than anyone could have predicted. Scientific studies have identified a whole range of negative consequences from insufficient sleep and you don’t need to suffer a diagnosed sleep disorder to be affected by them.
Anything under 7 hours of sleep per night can be damaging for us and links have been established between sleep deprivation and a whole raft of physical and psychological problems. Cognitive processes are seriously compromised and there is a detrimental impact on memory retention, decision making and ability to concentrate. But there are more serious consequences too. The risk of suffering many serious health conditions increases through lack of sleep including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke and high blood pressure. Conversely Gallup found that getting more sleep is associated with higher levels of wellbeing, with the benefits peaking at 8 hours per night, after which the positive effect tails off.
If sleep deprivation is bad for individuals, what is the impact on the workplace? Again research on the problem is instructive, shedding light on the scale of the problem that employers face. Memory Foam Warehouse (2) found that 72% of employees they interviewed got less than the recommended minimum of 7 hrs sleep at night. 47% said they were less productive at work when they were tired and 29% wanted to see sleeping facilities in their workplace where they could do some sleep catch-up. My own organisation Bank Workers Charity carried out research into wellbeing in the financial sector and it found poor quality of sleep to be the greatest non-work pressure affecting bank workers. Indeed 60% of the participants identified it as a frequent problem.
So what does this imply for performance and productivity at work? Again businesses should be concerned. A 2010 study in the USA found that employees suffering with insomnia experienced a 6.1% productivity loss. The researchers estimated that lost productivity due to poor sleep cost $3,156 per employee with insomnia and approximately $2,500 for those with less serious sleep problems. Another study indicated that sleep deprivation cost U.S. companies $63.2bn in reduced productivity mainly through presenteeism.
But is it the place of employers to tackle problems that originate outside work and where does an organisation’s responsibility for employee wellbeing start and end? Arguably, if sleep problems are having such a detrimental impact in the workplace, it does make sense for employers to act. Moreover, some of those sleep problems arise from employee anxiety about issues happening in the workplace, whether it’s their relationship with their boss, changes within the business or concerns about role or workload. So, although tackling the sleep issue isn’t currently an urgent priority for most organisations, the reality is that how well rested or exhausted employees are, has a significant impact on their performance and creativity and therefore on the bottom line.
Its early days but some organisations around the world are turning to innovative approaches to address the problem. Research has shown that short naps can significantly improve cognitive functioning and nowhere has this been better understood than in Japan. There, power napping has become accepted practice in many businesses. Some companies allow workers to sleep at their desks whilst others have set aside nap rooms, supplying blankets and pillows. In the USA many tech companies including Google and Hubspot view napping positively and have created dedicated “napspaces” for their employees
Also in America, Aurora Healthcare, concerned about the effect of poor sleep on performance, put 2600 employees through an online course for insomnia sufferers and found it saved them $672 for every employee that participated. Meanwhile US companies like Proctor and Gamble and Goldman Sachs are investing in programmes like sleep hygiene courses or introducing melatonin-regulating lighting, to help employees improve the quality of their sleep.
What else can employers do?
Fewer UK organisations appear to be addressing sleep deficit but this will surely change as awareness of the problem grows. However, there are some simple, practical steps that employers can take to encourage and support employees in developing healthy sleep patterns.
- Many businesses now have wellbeing strategies in place with a strong educative component. These can be used to raise employee awareness about the importance of healthy sleep and of the risks associated with sleep deprivation.
- Offer screening to those with suspected sleep problems so that their condition can be properly diagnosed and then signpost them to sources of help or treatment .
- Promote good work-life balance to create an organisational culture that supports healthy sleep behaviours for employees.
- Where possible, maximise access to natural light. Research tells us that employees whose offices receive more sunlight sleep better and have higher levels of wellbeing.
- Encourage staff to take regular breaks and to stretch their legs. Many jobs now centre on computers and there is evidence that prolonged use of computers (6+ hours per day) raises the risk of insomnia and sleep deficit. Also some sleep disorders such as apnoea are known to be aggravated by extended periods of sedentary activity.
About Paul Barrett
Paul Barrett is the Head of Wellbeing for the Bank Workers Charity. An occupational psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in employee mental and physical health, he is an established commentator on wellbeing in the workplace, writing for the Work Foundation, CIPD, Good Day at Work, Fit For Work, Business Healthy and Wellbeing Pulse. Paul can be found on Twitter at @lcoridon.