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Paul Barrett looks at the effects of poor sleep on employees, and how some organisations are tackling the problem.

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.

At least 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 really beginning to understand the implications of poor sleep for employees at home and at work

Investigating sleep deprivation has been a boom area of research in recent years. What’s become clear is that the scale of the problem, and its impact on individuals, businesses and the wider economy, is much greater than previously thought. Scientific studies have identified a whole range of negative consequences from insufficient sleep, and you don’t need to have a diagnosed sleep disorder to be affected by them.

Effects of poor sleep

Anything under seven 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 negative impact on memory retention, decision making and ability to concentrate.  But there are other, more serious consequences. The risk of many serious health conditions increases through lack of sleep. These include 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 eight 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 faced by employers. Memory Foam Warehouse found that 72% of employees interviewed got less than the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep at night. In addition, 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, the 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 study participants identified it as a frequent problem.

So what does this imply for performance and productivity at work? Again, businesses should be concerned. A 2011 US study 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 about $2,500 for those with less serious sleep problems. Another study indicated that sleep deprivation cost US companies $63.2bn in reduced productivity – mainly through presenteeism.

But is it employers’ place to tackle problems that originate outside work? And where does an organisation’s responsibility for employee wellbeing begin and end? Arguably, 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 workplace issues – 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 the degree to which employees are well rested or exhausted has  a significant impact on their  performance and creativity, and therefore on the bottom line.

Tackling the problem

Some organisations are turning to innovative approaches to address the problem. Research shows 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 – even supplying blankets and pillows. In the US, many tech companies, including Google and Hubspo,t view napping positively and have created dedicated ‘napspaces’ for their employees

US-based Aurora Healthcare, concerned about the effect of poor sleep on its performance, put 2,600 employees through an online course for insomnia sufferers. It found it saved $672 for every employee that participated. US companies like Proctor & Gamble and Goldman Sachs are investing in programmes such as sleep hygiene courses or introducing melatonin-regulating lighting, to help employees improve the quality of their sleep.

Effects of poor sleep

Fewer UK organisations seem to be addressing sleep deficit, but this will change as awareness of the problem grows. However, there are some simple, practical steps employers can take to encourage and support employees in developing healthy sleep patterns.

  • Put 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 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 are now focused on computers. 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.

A version of this article was previously published in HR Zone.