Why sleep is a work issue, and how employers can manage it

An employee's sleeping habits might seem like a personal issue for them to manage, but in fact employers should start prioritising workers' 'sleep health' if they want to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.

While I can't tell you why sleep is still being overlooked as a health issue by many employers, I can give you hard evidence as to why this needs to change, as well as tips from an expert on how to do it.

US researchers recently confirmed previous findings that disrupted or insufficient sleep was associated with a greater likelihood of absenteeism and lower work performance.

They found that even people who "seldom" had trouble sleeping took up to six days off work, and that sleep disturbances were linked to increased errors or incidents at work, and more health problems.

But the link between sleep problems and presenteeism was even "more concerning", they said.

The "presenteeism problem" is more costly to employers, because they're paying employees who take longer to complete their tasks, and can be liable for any errors or disabilities caused by workers who are cognitively or physically fatigued.

The evidence is there. Trouble sleeping negatively affects not only workers, but their employers too. So why are many employers still not targeting the issue?

According to the researchers, most of the US employers offering lifestyle management initiatives at work target nutrition or weight management, smoking cessation and fitness, but not sleep.

They recommended, therefore, that employers start including sleep improvement interventions in their health and wellbeing programs.

Psychologist and People Diagnostix managing director Jason van Schie made the same recommendation during a workplace health conference I attended last week: employers really need to start focusing on sleep health in their workplace initiatives.

Interestingly, he said employers should prioritise targeting poor sleep over other issues such as diet and exercise.

Poor sleep has a "far faster [negative] effect on someone's wellbeing and productivity than poor diet or [limited] exercise", he said.

"Let's address the sleep issue first, and then you'll find that person might have a little bit more energy and motivation to do some of these other health exercises."

To improve workers' sleep, van Schie said employers should:

  • allow for flexible working times if feasible; and
  • adopt business practices that promote healthy sleep, such as requiring managers to use a "delay delivery" option on emails they intend to send late at night to avoid setting an "unhealthy expectation" that workers should mimic that practice.

He said employers should encourage employees to:

  • specifically schedule time for sleep and not budge from their schedule;
  • turn off electronic devices well before bed time; and
  • not worry about falling asleep, as all that does is increase anxiety and make it more difficult to get to sleep.

By taking these steps, employers can "reap massive rewards" in terms of increasing work productivity and improving wellbeing, van Schie said.

(OHS Alert subscribers can read articles on these issues in full by clicking the links above, or start a trial subscription to gain access.)

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Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on November 6, 2015 at 8:04

A life time of experience working with and being sleep deprived has shown me that some individuals become frustrated, angry, make 'irrational decisions' and at times, appear to act in ways that are not associated with their 'normal' self.  In addition, some internal and external pressures placed on individuals lead them to believe that they have to 'burn the candle at both ends' to get ahead.

In organisations where education is supported and encouraged; where employees engage in 'additional' activities to supplement their regular salaries; and where the workplace culture is such that individuals are 'expected' or required to perform at high levels for long periods of time, it is possible that sleep deprivation could result in loss of life.  In organisations a sleep deprived employee is required to drive for the majority of their rostered hours, there is potential for them to slip into 'nano naps'. 

Some organisations have developed improved rostering practices to ensure that employees are provided with sufficient rest periods periods, and in doing so, take into consideration work, study and family requirements.

In addition, some employees may alter their dietary patterns and increase consumption of those items that will give them the instant 'fix' to get over their tiredness.  For some this becomes a pattern that leads to other health issues.

Organisations do need to consider sleep as part of their risk analysis and consider controls that can be implemented strategically and operationally to reduce the risk of breaches of health and safety.

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