Sorry, I Didn't Mean to Doze Off

The common rule of thumb seems to say that, while sleep requirements may vary among individuals, it is recommended that most adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night in order to function at their best (infants, other children and teenagers require even more sleep). How are you doing with the 7-9 hours per night? Have you checked your Fitbit lately? How many of you are using your wearable technology to track your amount of sleep and your sleep patterns?

On average, I would say I get six hours of sleep and very rarely do I sleep straight through. Some of my kids are night owls, and I worry about them not getting enough sleep. Now, I don't know how much of the recommended 7-9 hours is supposed to be REM sleep versus non-REM sleep, but the bottom line is that most people aren't getting enough sleep, and lack of quality sleep costs businesses directly through lost productivity.

According to a Gallup poll, 59% of Americans get seven or more hours of sleep at night, while 40% get less than seven hours. On average, Americans slept much more in the 1940s; they currently average 6.8 hours of sleep at night, down more than one hour from 1942. Placing aside serious sleep disorders, and without getting into the science and circadian rhythms around sleep, suffice it to say that this should be an area of importance to businesses.

Harvard research has shown that, for the average worker, insomnia results in the loss of 11.3 days of productivity each year. Researchers have, also, found linkages between poor sleep and reduced quality of life on the job. Lack of sleep is a problem in the workplace; in addition to overall safety issues, including increased accident rates and absences, impaired cognition can indirectly, also, heighten anxiety and depression. The impact of sleep loss often goes under the radar, but it can certainly have a negative impact on organizations, in terms of lost productivity, adverse physical and mental functions, and poor social relationships. Although lack of sleep can have serious consequences, sleep needs tend to be ignored both by the American culture and corporate culture.

Why aren't people getting enough sleep? One reason could be our increased use of technology, especially mobile devices. A study last year showed that people who monitored their smartphones for business reasons after 9 p.m. were more tired and less engaged the next day at work. Another study found that the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety. We know that the use of light-emitting electronic devices for reading, communication, and entertainment has greatly increased over the last decade.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, many U.S. workers are sacrificing sleep for work, and longer commutes. According to Charles Czeisler, an American physician and sleep researcher, over the past five decades our average sleep duration on work nights has decreased by an hour and a half, down from eight and a half to just under seven. 31% of us sleep fewer than six hours a night, and 69% report insufficient sleep. Certainly, there are key occupations where sleeplessness may play a more critical role than others from a safety perspective; however, adverse effects can impact all types of businesses. What can an employer do to address this?

There are a number of steps that businesses can take to improve employees' sleep and their health. Here are just a few:

  • Encourage employees to get enough sleep; educate them about the importance of sleep and good sleep practices. Make sure employees take scheduled breaks, and create a corporate culture in which working more than a set number of hours is frowned upon; thereby supporting reasonable schedules.

  • As part of your overall approach to employee well-being and organizational health & productivity, offer health promotion programs that address stress management, physical activity/fitness, diet/nutrition, tobacco, alcohol, and substance usage.
  • Offer workshops on guided imagery/relaxation, meditation, massage, stretching, and yoga. Such programs are frequently used to improve stress management, promote relaxation, improve flexibility and breathing in the workplace and to enhance sleep at home. These activities can be practiced at home to improve sleep quality, as well as help with the treatment of certain sleep disorders.
  • Through your health-risk assessments (HRAs), you may be able to identify and offer assistance to employees with sleep disorders.
  • In some types of businesses (e.g. night or shift workers), where employees engage in dangerous tasks, it might be appropriate to put in place some type of screening system to identify sleep disorders, like chronic fatigue or sleepiness.
  • Review policies around overnight travel, "red-eye" flights, and expectations for being in the office, following travel (especially when adapting to changing time zones); providing safe transportation after arriving at a destination (e.g., taking a taxi from the airport rather than driving a rental car).
  • Provide flexible work start and end times; this, also, addresses commute times, as well.
  • Promote your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to assist employees with more serious sleep issues.
  • What about providing nap rooms? One study found that a 40-minute nap improved performance and mood among medical personnel working extended hours in an emergency room. Napping has become increasingly popular. More employers are setting up nap rooms for workers, especially in the tech industry.
  • As part of the focus on employees' overall health and productivity, doesn't It make good sense for businesses to pay attention to employees' sleep health needs?