People

Time to wake up to the real costs of workers losing sleep

From sleep pods to sleep coaching, organisations are starting to take the sleeping patterns of their employees seriously as tiredness and exhaustion take their toll on economic productivity

Workplace wellbeing has grown as a corporate priority around the world in recent years, with companies investing heavily in wellbeing strategies, spaces, services and support. Yet one of the core components of health is often overlooked despite being a driver of mental and physical wellness: sleep.

Now, however, organisations are slowly waking up to the idea that they should take some accountability for the quality of their employees’ sleep. Why? Workers aren’t striking on the street demanding businesses respect their circadian rhythms – so what is the benefit for the business of organisations intervening in an intimate area of living that is seemingly the sole responsibility of the individual?

There is a clear and growing body of scientific evidence that proves that sleep is linked to better performance and productivity. The research presents a compelling business case for organisations to invest in better tools, environments and coaching to help employees have better-quality sleep and, in return, work more effectively.

Making the business case

Research conducted by the Rand Corporation found that exhaustion has an economic impact globally. It is estimated that the US lost 2.3 per cent of its gross domestic product, Japan 2.9 per cent, and the UK 1.9 per cent due to worker tiredness and exhaustion, so it pays to have a workforce with a healthy sleep regime.

Not only are the financial impacts significant, but also the health implications for employees. The research also found that people with fewer than six hours sleep have a 13 per cent higher mortality rate than those sleeping seven or more. This had led to a number of organisations offering incentives to employees to improve their sleep, with one company in Japan even giving out a ‘sleep bonus’.

The importance of sleep is not only clear through the abundance of evidence, but also the growing ‘napping economy’. The market is swelling with demand from corporate clients for nap pods and quiet rooms in the office. New products are filling the market claiming to improve sleep quality, from lighting that matches circadian rhythms through the day to furniture for rooms allocated for power naps. Google is one of the most enthusiastic advocates of the nap pod, but critics believe this is primarily used as a tool for talent attraction rather than actually encouraging employees to sleep.

‘Tackling the sleep epidemic from within the organisation…’

McKinsey found that 70 per cent of leaders surveyed thought that sleep management should be taught in organisations. Leadership is a key component in educating employees about sleep as workers look to their leaders to set the culture and expectations of the organisation. Research indicates that the most inspiring leaders are the ones which prioritise sleep, according to Dr Els van der Helm, founder of Shleep and keynote speaker at WORKTECH’s Wellness 2019 conference.

Leaders such as Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Jeff Bezos of Amazon claim that they always try and get eight hours sleep a night. This means that organisations should invest in sleep coaching for its leaders, so that they can go on to set a better example for the rest of the company.

Natural biological rhythms

Another way to combat the sleepless epidemic is to fully embrace flexible working based on the natural biological rhythms of employees. Not everyone is biologically programmed to function optimally from 9 to 5. Professor Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist at Lugwig-Maximilian University in Munich, explains that ‘if you let people sleep within their own windows and work during their optimal times, you could potentially shorten their working hours by 30 per cent; with better sleeping patterns people can be more productive’.

Although the flexible work culture isn’t appropriate for every job role and is often clouded by the expectancy that managers and employees are expected to be in the same place at the same time, there is still space and opportunity to optimise people’s preferred working hours. For example, late morning is a good time to meet for both early risers and night owls. The early risers won’t have their post-lunch energy dip, and night owls will have just entered the office.

Matthew Walker, leading neurologist and author of Why We Sleep, has called this global sleep deprivation a ‘catastrophic sleep epidemic’. As people increasingly blur the lines between work and life, there seems to be no natural ‘off’ period so it is easy in today’s society to over-exert oneself, but Walker’s concerns are not unfounded. The research is continually proving that sleep deprivation has serious health and economic implications. While it may ultimately the decision of the individual to govern their sleep patterns, organisations have a vital part to play in providing the right environments and tools to give their employees to best possibility in achieving quality sleep.

View the extended interview with Dr Els van der Helm in the Innovation Zone