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Treating Insomnia Benefits Work Outcomes

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Insomnia is running rampant through contemporary society. Large scale studies estimate the prevalence of insomnia of around 25%-30% of adults in the United States and Canada. This is a big health problem, but it is also a work problem. Accumulating evidence indicates that insomnia undermines not only the health and well-being of employees, but also their effectiveness in their jobs. Research indicates that insomnia leads to hostility at work, low job satisfaction , high levels of unethical behavior , high levels of cyberloafing , and even abusive supervision behavior by leaders .

Thus, employee insomnia is an issue that employers should care about. Good employers care about the health and well-being of their employees simply because they value people. But ALL employers care about the effectiveness of their employees. This opens a very important question: What can employers do about insomnia? Educating employees about which behaviors are consistent with a good night of sleep (referred to as sleep hygiene) is a good start, but not enough. Taking steps to make the workplace a less stressful and anxiety-inducing environment will also help, but this does not influence the stress and anxiety people face outside of the workplace. So what else can be done?

My coauthors (Jared Miller here at the University of Washington, and Sophie Bostock from Big Health and the University of Oxford) and I sought an answer to this question. But to get there, we started with the question of whether or not insomnia treatment would influence work outcomes. We designed a field experiment designed to test the effect of an insomnia treatment program on work-relevant outcomes such as mood, self-control, job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behavior, and counterproductive work behavior (also called organizational deviance). Our premise was that if this insomnia treatment program had beneficial effects on these work relevant outcomes, then the implication would be that organizations that provide access to such a program would see benefits in the effectiveness of their employees.

To conduct this study, we utilized Sleepio, an insomnia treatment program that has been validated in the sleep medicine research literature. This is a cognitive behavior treatment for insomnia (CBT-I) which is internet-based and adaptive to each user. This form of insomnia treatment is much more cost effective and broadly deployable than traditional face-to-face programs, but has similar results in treating insomnia. Like other forms of CBT-I, this program had the 5 core components of stimulus control, sleep restriction, relaxation training, cognitive therapy, and sleep hygiene education. Participants work through the program online over the course of weeks, making long term changes in their approach to sleep.

We conducted a field study in which 223 participants were randomly assigned to either the treatment group or the wait-list control group (in which participants received treatment after the study was complete). Similar to other studies of CBT-I, we measured the sleep of the participants. However, moving beyond previous studies of CBT-I, we also measured a group of work-relevant measures: mood, job satisfaction, self-control, organizational citizenship behavior (i.e., being helpful at work), and counterproductive workplace behavior (such as theft). We conducted measurements of these variables prior to the start of treatment, and then again 10 weeks later.

What we found was largely consistent with our expectations. Consistent with previous research on the efficacy of CBT-I, we found that the treatment group had improvements in insomnia that were not matched by the wait-list control group. Moving beyond previous research, we found that the treatment group had improvements in mood, job satisfaction, and self-control. We also found that these effects lead to downstream improvements in organizational citizenship behavior and counterproductive work behaviors (indirect effects of treatment through the mediators of insomnia, mood, job satisfaction, and self-control). In all cases, the improvements in the treatment group were beyond any improvements that occurred in the wait-list control group. You can find more details on this research in our forthcoming article in the Journal of Applied Psychology .

Overall, this means that online insomnia treatment programs based on CBT-I protocols (such as those used in Sleepio) can have important beneficial effects on workplace outcomes. When those suffering from insomnia utilize CBT-I programs, they fare better at work. This benefits not only the employees, but also the organizations that such employees work for. Based on these findings, my colleagues and I recommend that organizations put programs in place to capitalize on these implications. Many organizations have wellness programs. Implementing a component to these programs that help employees find screening for insomnia would help these employees realize that they could benefit from CBT-I programs. Employers who pay for access to CBT-I programs will likely yield a strong return on their relatively small financial investment in the form of employees who are happier with their job, happier in general, more helpful at work, and less likely to engage in negative behaviors at work. We can move beyond just observing the problem of sleepy and ineffective employees at work and actually do something about it.