How Do Your Employees Sleep At Night? Should You Care?

Robin Simons By Robin Simons

Sleep may seem like the most unproductive part of each day. It’s downtime, off the clock, non-billable-hours time. Surely, worrying about whether or not your employees get a good night’s sleep is not something you need to consider…or is it?

With a new focus on overall employee health and well-being, many companies are waking up to realize that sleep health plays an important role in creating healthy, happy employees from the CEO to line staff.

Well known organizations such as Ben & Jerry’s, Zappos, Nike and the Huffington Post are offering employees dedicated nap rooms with pillows, lounges chairs, couches and even sleeping pods. Fortune 500 companies don’t make these investments in sleep health without a good reason. So, what do they know about the importance of sleep hygiene that you may not?

Your Employees Are Likely Sleep-Deprived

According to multiple studies, most Americans wake up and start their day feeling tired.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that healthy adults get a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night, with an overall range of between seven to eight hours. However, a study by Hult University Business School showed that the professionals surveyed averaged only six hours and 28 minutes. The resulting “sleep deficit” is constantly growing, and extra sleep on the weekends doesn’t help – in fact, it may even hurt by disrupting sleep patterns.

“Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is an all-too-common, vicious cycle in the workplace. Everyone’s busy and deadlines loom large. Employees with increased workloads put in more hours, often cutting into sleep time just to get everything done,” explains Alicia Pereschuk, Supervisor of Coaching Services at BHS. “Less sleep results in decreased job performance and even long term mental and physical health conditions.”

For short term sleep debt, sleeping in on the weekend can help. However, making a habit of going to bed earlier all week is a better solution. According to sleep.org, long term sleep debt is very difficult to make up, so your best bet is to clean up your sleep hygiene and then add in some short (20 min, or alternately 60-90 min) naps, as long as they’re not close to bedtime.

From sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome to insomnia, there are over 80 recognized sleep disorders affecting about 70 million Americans. There are several main categories of sleep disorders: insomnia, sleep-related breathing disorders, central disorders of hypersomnolence, circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders, parasomnias, and sleep related movement disorders. The good news is that many sleep disorders are very treatable.

Why Sleep Matters

Waking up feeling refreshed and ready to start the day feels good; however, a good night’s sleep has many other benefits. During sleep, the brain makes new connections, builds memories and compartmentalizes the data received throughout the day. Sleep also plays a role in healing and repairing heart and blood vessels.  In addition, a lack of sleep lowers leptin levels and raises ghrelin levels in your body. Leptin is the hormone that tells your brain that it’s had enough to eat, while ghrelin stimulates your appetite. So, a lack of sleep can also lead to poor eating choices due to this hormone imbalance.

Overall, missing sleep makes waking hours less productive and can have long-term physical and mental health consequences. Simply put, our bodies and brains need to rest in order to work at peak performance.

A sleep deficit negatively affects four key areas that most jobs require from their employees in order to be successful: attention/concentration, reaction time, decision-making and memory. Depending on the job, these negative impacts can be risky if not deadly.

Would you want to have a surgeon operating on you who couldn’t remember where to cut? Or how about boarding a commuter train driven by an engineer with decreased attention span or reaction time? The statistic can be frightening. For example, a study by Harvard University showed that truckers with sleep apnea who were non-compliant with sleep apnea treatment were five times more likely to have preventable crashes than those without sleep apnea.

Impact of Sleep Deficit in the Workplace

A study published by the Associated Professional Sleep Societies reports that over 23% of the workforce is affected by insomnia, losing nearly eight full days of productivity per year, costing businesses an annual loss of $2,280 per employee. So, a company with just 500 employees loses over a million dollars a year in productivity from employees dealing with insomnia. The losses multiply as the number of employees on the payroll grow.

According to the Hult study, all age groups reported that sleep loss had an impact on their organizational performance, including frustration when projects weren’t going to plan, having trouble staying focused in meetings or daily objectives, and finding it hard to work with challenging co-workers.  Researchers have also identified links between poor sleep and higher risks for obesity, diabetes and compromised emotional and mental health.

How Organizations Can Help Employees Sleep Better

Not every company needs to install sleeping pods and offer pillows to their staffers in order to address the cycle of sleep deprivation. Here are a few simple ideas that can help employees to sleep better:

  • Consider installing additional lighting, particularly lights that simulate natural daylight conditions. A brighter workplace increases alertness and supports the body’s natural circadian rhythms that regulate the sleep and wake cycle.
  • Encourage management teams to set healthy limits on expected response times, deadlines and work hours. Just because you can check your inbox from your pillow before going to sleep doesn’t mean that you should. A healthy work/life balance will result in better results.
  • Offer a variety of beverages in break rooms and cafeterias, including a large number of caffeine-free options. Although coffee and the like can provide a boost, they can become part of the unhealthy cycle of sleeplessness.
  • Encourage participation in wellness activities and use of Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits. A healthy diet, regular exercise and stress reduction are all useful tools that can help address sleep issues. Check out this article for more ideas.
  • If at all possible, avoid short terms of swing shift work for employees, as the changing schedule almost guarantees sleep disruptions. If you must assign swing shifts, try to have the changes take place over longer periods of time. For example, two to four weeks of working the same schedule rather than a few days at a time. Some employers allow for additional time off for those on a swing shift to allow for adjusting sleep patterns.
  • Be mindful of requiring long-term or constant overtime that causes employees to get under 6 hours of sleep a night in order to complete the work on an ongoing basis.
  • Investigate your health plan to determine whether it covers an official sleep study conducted in a laboratory setting. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine offers a free tool to find an accredited sleep center by zip code.

Your EAP or wellness program is a great place to identify and address sleep disorders that could be having a negative impact on the job. Well-being coaches do detailed assessments that include information gathering around sleep, and frequently support people around sleep as a coaching topic.

“Our care coordinators start each new client relationship by completing an intake questionnaire, and reviewing sleep behavior is one of the areas we cover,” explains Pereschuk. “It’s surprising how many people simply expect to be sleep-deprived and aren’t aware that we can offer advice and coaching to help ensure a better night’s sleep. Not only does it make for a more productive day, healthy sleep is critical for overall physical and mental health.”

Want to learn more? Get in touch with BHS.

Robin Simons

By Robin Simons, MA, ACC, BHS Well-Being Coach

Robin Simons is a jack-of-all-trades life coach. She had extensive coach training through the Coaches Training Institute, and has been coaching in private practice since 2006. She comes from a background in Employee Assistance Programs, with 10 years experience. She has a master’s in Special Education, and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Women’s studies. In wellness, she enjoys working with smoking cessation, sleep, stress, special diets (gluten free, allergies, paleo/primal), kicking the sugar and junk food habit, and helping you get where you want to go, no matter where you start.