If your business is running on tired employees it’s going nowhere fast.
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Why tired employees are costing you money

We all know how it feels to come into work after a poor night’s sleep. We’re largely unproductive, we’re slow to respond and we lack creative energy. For most people this is an occasional annoyance. However, for a large number of employees, these problems extend far beyond the loss of a single night’s sleep.

One quarter of the UK population suffer some form of sleep disorder that creates problems for them most of the time.

Sleep deprivation has become a boom area of research in the last 10 years but only now are we beginning to understand the implications of poor sleep for employees. And what’s become clear is that the scale of the problem and its impact on people, businesses and 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 seven hours of sleep per night can be damaging for us, and researchers have established links between sleep deprivation and a whole raft of physical and psychological problems. Go to work while sleep deprived and your cognitive processes are compromised; most notably your memory retention, decision-making abilities and concentration.

But there are more serious consequences too. The risk of suffering many serious health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke and high blood pressure increases through lack of sleep. Conversely, performance management consultant Gallup found that getting more sleep is associated with higher levels of wellbeing, with the benefits peaking at eight hours per night, after which the positive effect tails off.

Sleep-deprived employees stuck in first gear

If your business is running on overtired people it’s going nowhere fast.

Memory Foam Warehouse found that 72% of employees they interviewed got less than the recommended minimum of seven hours sleep a night. Almost half (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 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.

Concerned about the performance and productivity levels of these tired workers? You should be. A 2010 study in the USA found that employees suffering from insomnia experienced a 6.1% loss in productivity. The researchers estimated that reduced productivity due to poor sleep cost employers $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 should your organisation’s responsibility for employee wellbeing start and end?

If sleep problems are having such a detrimental impact in the workplace, it makes 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 their 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 your employees are has a significant impact on their performance and creativity. And therefore on your company’s bottom line.

The power of the humble nap

It’s early days, but some organisations around the world are turning to innovative approaches to address employee fatigue. Research has shown that short naps can significantly improve cognitive functioning. Nowhere has this been better understood than in Japan, where 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 tired employees.

Also in the US, Aurora Healthcare, concerned about the effect of poor sleep on performance, put 2,600 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 the introduction of melatonin-regulating lighting, to help employees improve the quality of their sleep.

What else can you do for tired employees?

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 you can take to encourage your employees to develop healthy sleep patterns:

  1. If your business already has a wellbeing strategy with a strong educative component, use this to raise awareness among your employees about the importance of healthy sleep and the risks associated with sleep deprivation.
  1. Offer to screen employees with suspected sleep problems so their condition can be diagnosed and treated.
  1. Promote good work-life balance to create an organisational culture that supports healthy sleep behaviours for employees.
  1. 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.
  1. Encourage staff to take regular breaks and to stretch their legs. There is evidence that prolonged use of computers (more than six hours per day) raises the risk of insomnia and sleep deficit. Some sleep disorders such as apnoea are also known to be aggravated by extended periods of sedentary activity.