Sleep and the Workplace Should employers be concerned about their employees sleep? Yes.

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Poor sleep causes sleep deprivation and affects performance.  It also affects attendance. It affects them both big time. 

It affects them to such an extent that sleep loss and associated fatigue costs the UK economy over £30bn and the US economy $150bn a year¹ ².  It costs Japan $138bn and Germany $60³. This ranges between 2 – 3% of GDP. That’s the entire health or military budgets of these countries. Let that sink in for a moment. 

As a measure of lost productivity, some studies have found a loss of between $2,000 – $3,500 per employee per year as a result of poor sleep¹ ⁴.

What’s going on?

Firstly, a lot of people are sleep deprived.  Only a third of adults get enough sleep¹. We need about 7.5 – 8 hours each to be performing anywhere near our peak⁴ ⁵.  Yes, even those of you who are thinking ‘rubbish, I’m fine on 5 hours’. You’re probably not and it’s likely you are under-performing.

Many people, CEOs, politicians, other high achievers, describe themselves as what the The Wall Street Journal once described as the ‘sleepless elite’.  Getting by on a few hours of sleep. Scientists estimate those individuals make up only about 1% of the population¹.  It’s almost certain you are not in this 1% and neither are your employees.

So What?

Chronic sleep deprivation is defined as getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night routinely.  Here’s some of the results.

Sleep loss decreases brain functioning by as much as 15%.  One such affected area is the motor speech centre. This is why you struggle for words when you’re tired.  Another, is the connections between the cortex and the thalamus. The breakdown between these two areas of the brain leads to reduced alertness and thinking power⁶ ⁷.

Complex reasoning is inhibited.  Studies have shown reduction in flexible, creative, innovative and agile thought. Decision making is also impacted with increases in risk taking and poor judgment associated with sleep loss¹ ⁶.

Sleep deprivation seriously affects your brain’s ability to clean itself.  This inhibits general brain functioning. This is a hot area of research and links are being drawn to diseases like Alzheimer’s⁸.

Sleep deprivation seriously affects your ability to consolidate memories and learn.  During sleep information is transferred from the short term storage to long term storage in the brain.  In addition during sleep your brain consolidates learning, snipping, organising and embedding new information.  Sleep deprivation reduces this which makes for weaker memories and poorer quality information¹.

People who are sleep deprived (remember, this is sleeping less than 7 hours night) tend to choose repetitive tasks and avoid challenging and creative tasks¹.   What does this mean in the workplace… checking emails or social media rather than thinking about the next big thing or problem solving.

Sleep loss also makes people more likely to blame others for their mistakes and results in a lower ability to self regulate and work well in teams.  In other words, bad managers and bad team players.

What should we do?

There are parts of people’s lives work should not be a part of.  This is obvious and very important. There are, however, some areas where it can and perhaps should be.

Workplaces now routinely support employees getting fitter and healthier.  Through gym memberships, diet plans or free check-ups. This is a win win.  Healthier employees mean happier employees which means better employees.

Is sleep a step too far?  I don’t think it is. For me, it falls in the same category as health.  It’s a win win.

At the very least workplaces could be educating their people about sleep, its importance and how to sleep better for longer.  Work could provide training and tools for sleeping better. I’d suggest employees could go one step further and provide active advice and sleep plans for their people if they want them.

References

¹ Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep. Penguin Random House UK.

²http://www.sleepcenterofgreaterpittsburgh.com/downloads/sleep_performance_the_workplace.pdf

³www.rand.org. news/press.2016/11/30/index1.html

⁴ Rosekind M, Gregory KB, Mallis M, Brandt S, Seal B, Lerner D. The cost of poor sleep: workplace productivity loss and associated costs. J Occup Environ Med, 2010;52(1), 91–8.

⁵Roffwarg HP, Muzio JN, Dement WC (1966) Ontogenetic development of the human sleep-dream cycle. Science 152: 604-619.

⁶Orzel-Gryglewska, J. (2010). Consequences of Sleep Deprivation.  International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. 23, 95 – 114.

⁷Watson, N. F. et al. (2015). Joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society on the recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: methodology and discussion. Sleep 38(8):1161–1183.

⁸Plog., B., A and Nedergaard, M.   (2018). The glymphatic system in CNS health and disease: past, present and future. Annu Rev Pathol. 13: 379–394. doi:10.1146/annurev-pathol-051217-111018.

Written by
Sam Billington

Sam is our sleep guru. I am fascinated by sleep and I've used my science training to research and learn about sleep. I have been providing sleep advice and personal sleep plans for years. My day job is Head of Workplace Culture in Defra, I live in London with my wife and have a PhD in Ecology and Biology.