29th Apr 2019

Is it time to start offering ‘sleep’ as an employee benefit?

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‘Spring forward, fall back’ – a simple but effective phrase to help us keep track of which way to wind our digital clocks twice a year, and as we relax into the losing of an hours sleep and lighter mornings, it’s timely to look at the importance of sleep for employee’s and their productivity at work.

Increasingly, as wellbeing becomes a recognised and practised element in the employee benefits space, sleep is being seen as the next big thing, following on from nutrition, exercise and mindfulness. And it’s not without good reason, UK research by Sealy found that 70% of employees thought that they could function better at work if they had slept better. Quite simply, poor sleep practise can result in all the usual suspects of poor health focus.

Decreased concentration and productivity

Our brains need sleep to recover. Sleep deprivation is tantamount to continually flexing a muscle without giving the muscle anytime to recover and build strength back. Therefore, continual deprivation results in the brain becoming stressed resulting in a lack of mental agility and a reduction in the ability to handle and process daily tasks.

There is a physiological reason for this – lack of sleep produces an increase in the hormone cortisol – a key component in the production of stress. It basically takes over the frontal lobe of the brain (which is where we manifest positivity in our thinking) meaning that we struggle to make room to view things in an optimistic light. This is backed up by the research too which shows that 65% of individuals regularly lose their temper or become irritable with colleagues, as well as 30% who claim to suffer from a lack of productivity. Worryingly one-in-five employees have admitted to being late into work, or even having sick days as a result of lack of sleep, while 1-in-25 of us even admit to falling asleep whilst at work.

Strategy for a good night’s sleep

One way in which employers can help employees get the good night’s sleep they need is by introducing a sleep management programme as part of their overall health and wellbeing strategy. Most wellbeing strategies will already include elements focussed on nutrition and exercise, so it’s surprising that sleep falls off many people’s agenda.

Sleep management programmes can take many forms depending on the company’s culture and capacity. It could simply be educational material (available online or in person) about the advantages of getting enough sleep or the impact that overusing our phones and tablet devices has on our sleep cycle. Some organisations may want to take a more radical and/or physical approach by introducing sleeping pods to the office environment.

Dr Bridget Juniper, Director at Work and Wellbeing says that “Top-flight athletes make sleep a priority in their daily training routines. As Usain Bolt once said: “Sleep is extremely important to meI need to rest and recover in order for the training I do to be absorbed by my body.” If this is normal operating procedure for sporting professionals, we can certainly expect to see more sleep initiatives being introduced for our own weary corporate athletes.”

Data analysis can make you sleepy…

I’m not talking about a lecture from someone in a long white coat as they extol the virtues of bell curves and alternative hypotheses’ – no, what we are talking about here is using actual data from individuals to help them to manage their sleep, and, in fact other areas of their health and lifestyle.

Wearable tech provides ever valuable insight into our sleeping behaviours and where they can be improved – for example, data such as employees’ resting heart rate, how much rapid eye movement (REM) sleep they get, blood pressure, amount of exercise and diet can be collated to get an overall picture of the workforce’s health.

The beauty of this type of data collation is it can be totally anonymised and employers could incentivise employees based on the amount of sleep gained to keep them be motivated to continue and to encourage teamwork.

How can you support your staff?

Short of tucking your employees in at night and reading them a calming story, it is hard to enforce any kind of regime that ensures they have adequate sleep. However, as with other aspects of wellbeing, the most powerful tool in your arsenal as an employer is education.

Establishing a program of seminars, providing resources for staff to absorb, or, just raising the awareness of sleep as an actual health benefit will all help. Encouraging staff to use wearable tech to actually put into numbers how they are doing can only be a good thing as well.

Tying sleep into other areas of wellbeing will also help people focus on it as an important benefit.