Sleep and productivity – 8 tips for supporting employees with sleep health

Sleep plays a huge role in our physical and mental health. During sleep, our body undergoes essential processes of repair and rejuvenation, aiding in the recovery of muscles, tissues, and organs. It helps strengthen the immune system, reducing the risk of sickness and infection, and supports heart health. It is also essential for regulating hormones that are responsible for metabolism and growth.

A good night’s sleep enhances cognitive abilities, including attention, concentration, memory formation, learning, and problem-solving skills. It helps boost our mood and makes it easier to manage stress and emotions. But insufficient sleep is linked to an increased risk of developing mental and physical health conditions.

How much sleep you should get?

Everyone is different, and so is how much sleep you should get. Findings suggest that general guidance for a healthy adult is 7-9 hours according to the Sleep Foundation. But was is more important than how long you sleep for is sleep quality. Deep sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep are essential.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of US adults not getting enough rest or sleep every day and almost 40% of adults report falling asleep during the day without meaning to at least once a month. In the UK the ‘Need for Sleep’ study of 4000 UK adults found sleep deprivation is affecting the majority of people with 71% not getting the recommended amount.

What are the sleep cycles?

Sleep cycles are a recurring pattern of stages that our brain and body go through during a night of sleep. We start off with the transition, a light sleep stage where we are drowsy and muscle activity slows down, and our brain produces alpha and theta waves. Following this is deep sleep, which is vital for physical restoration and growth. It is characterized by slow brain waves known as delta waves. During this stage, our body repairs tissues, strengthens the immune system, and promotes overall physical recovery. Rapid Eye Movement sleep is associated with vivid dreams and cognitive restoration. It occurs approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep and recurs several times throughout the night. During REM sleep, our brain activity increases, and our eyes move rapidly. This stage is crucial for memory consolidation, learning, and emotional processing.

Why is sleep important for work performance?

The Employee Mental Health Report drawn from the analysis of 150,000 conversations that 11,300 employees from 11 organizations and 60 countries had with Wysa’s AI chat platform, over thirteen months (July 2021-July 2022). The data shows that the majority (75%) of employees reported low to moderate energy on average throughout the day. This is obviously impacting work and their performance and productivity. When we’re low on energy, we’re not performing at our best. Sleep is crucial for energy – and a lack of sleep has a big effect not only on job performance but physical and mental health.

4 effects of lack of sleep and work

Quality sleep plays a big role in how we feel, think and behave. And it is also clear that poor sleep can have a negative effect on our mood, body, and job performance. Whilst less than seven hours on one night is unlikely to put you into significant sleep debt and have a huge impact, as long as you have an early night to make up for it, longer term sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on work performance. Having sleep problems and more significant sleep deprivation can result in poor physical and mental health – which brings to employers associated costs. 

1. Reduced cognitive function and memory

Poor sleep patterns and feeling tired impairs cognitive function, affecting our ability to concentrate, make decisions, and think critically. It hampers memory formation, learning, and problem-solving skills. This results in an increase in human error, and reduces reaction time (as shown by Johannes van den Berg and Gregory Neely) which makes employees more likely to make mistakes or have a workplace accident. When sleep deprived it is difficult to find focus and so concentration levels will drop.

2. Interpersonal relationships

Sleep deprivation can make us irritable and disengaged which will affect our relationships at work. Excessive sleepiness may also make us yawn in meetings, which may look like a lack of engagement. Good communication and teamwork are essential for workplace performance. Coworkers with good relationships are more likely to be able to be collaborative and contribute towards shared goals. 

3. Sleep and productivity

A sleep deprived workforce will be one that isn’t productive. One study of over 4000 US. workers found ‘significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes’ among those who had less sleep, particularly for those with sleep disorders such as insomnia, and estimated a $1,967 loss in productivity per worker due to poor sleep.

4. Absenteeism and presenteeism

As is clear from the impact of sleep on our health, job performance can be strongly correlated with sleep deprivation and sleep quality. And if the stress on health gets too much, it could result in employees not being engaged yet still attending work, or having to take time off, accelerating rates of absenteeism and presenteeism. It’s actually presenteeism that has the biggest cost implications for employers, with Deloitte estimating that of the cost of £42-£45bn that poor mental health among employees costs UK employers it’s presenteeism that is the most expensive, costing £27bn to £29bn, compared to absence costs of around £7bn, and turnover costs of approximately £9bn.

8 ways employers can promote good sleep

1. Mental health apps

Wysa has a number of sleep activities and exercises to help improve sleep hygiene and sleep quality. Through mindfulness and meditation users can get into a routine of better sleep, reducing sleep deprivation and minimizing the chances of sleep disturbances. As well as directly supporting sleep, the journal and AI chatbot make it easy to offload worries and talk through stresses, so that employees don’t ruminate on them when they should be resting.

2. Meditation sessions

Workplace mindfulness and meditation can improve overall employee wellbeing. Among its suite of tools, Wysa for Employers offers online workshops and sessions on a number of ways to improve mental health, including mindfulness and meditation. People who practice mindfulness have been shown to be more engaged and have an increase in productivity, according to a paper in the Journal of Happiness.

3. Encourage exercise at lunchtime

Getting the endorphins going through physical activity has lots of benefits – including better sleep and many studies look at the epidemiology of exercise and sleep.  Engaging in physical activity during the day helps to increase the amount of time spent in restorative sleep, allowing for a more complete sleep cycle, and can help individuals fall asleep faster and experience fewer awakenings during the night, leading to more efficient sleep. Exercise has been found to reduce symptoms of the sleep disorder insomnia. Exercising too close to bedtime can however kickstart energy levels making it harder to fall asleep, so employers can encourage team members to take a break in the working day for a class or short jog.

4. Flexible work schedules

It’s crucial to recognize that we are all energized and productive at different times of the day. Flexible working schedules recognize this and studies have found that they can in fact improve productivity. The move to flexible working arrangements started in the 1970s as a potential solution to supporting workplace health but has really accelerated in recent years after the pandemic, with Forbes reporting that around three-quarters of companies now offer hybrid working arrangements.

5. Addressing workplace stressors

A study by T Akerstedt, A Knutsson, P Westerholm, T Theorell, L Alfredsson, and G Kecklund found that high workloads and intense pressure in an employee’s working life are a risk factor for sleep disturbances and sleep disorders. Shift workers or those who work long hours may find that their circadian misalignment overlaps with a traditional sleep-wake cycle, which can cause a number of health issues.

A 2022 research review in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine linked shift work to serious physical health problems, such as heart attacks and increases risks of chronic diseases like coronary heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. High intensity workloads can lead to poor sleep as people are either working long hours so unable to rest after work, or may be finding they are very stressed. Toxic workplaces are highly correlated with negative health outcomes, and a work environment that provides open communication channels to address stress, organizational politics, and work life balance is likely to have a workforce with better sleep patterns. 

6. Prioritise breaks

One essential way to reduce stress that can affect sleep quality is by prioritizing breaks. Once a week have a team lunch to ensure people step away from their desks and normalize leaving on time. A 2016 Finnish study by Korpela, Kinnunen, Geurts, de Bloom and Sianoja found that taking lunchtime breaks and fully detaching from work increases levels of energy at work both in the short term and over time and can help address workplace productivity loss.

7. Limit out of hours communication

The nature of our digital world means that we always have devices with us, and it’s easy to be contactable at all times of the day. This can cause pressure, and being engaged late in the evening or at weekends can cause sleep deprivation as employees are unable to switch off. 

University of South Australia researchers surveyed more than 2200 academics and professional staff across 40 Australian universities about their experience with out-of-hours work communication, and found that in a quarter (26%) had to respond to work-related communication during leisure time, half often receive calls and emails at the weekend, and a third (36%) say it’s normal to respond immediately. 

In 2021 Portugal banned out of hours communication, civil servants in Brussels can opt out, and was a ‘right to disconnect’ law brought into place France, Italy and other countries. The challenge comes when trying to integrate this with flexible working, as people could be on different schedules.

8. Training sessions

Sleep hygiene is essentially practicing ways to get a good night’s sleep. It includes things such as reducing caffeine in the afternoon and evening, not exercising late at night, turning electronic devices off before bedtime, and having a dark and cool room. As part of your wellbeing package you could offer training sessions and guidance to help people get better sleep.

Sleep and work might not seem to be initially correlated, but it’s clear that there are numerous links. The effects of sleep deprivation have a significant impact on employees in the workplace and chronic sleep loss can result in health care costs for employers, alongside the lack of motivation and engagement. The negative effects of sleep should be a wake up call to make rest and relaxation a priority. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

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