Waking Up To How Sleep and Work REALLY Interact

By | March 8, 2016
Awake

Photo by Aaron Edwards

 

By this time, most of us are well-versed in how sleep — more accurately, the lack of it — affects work. Injuries, errors, accidents, and health care costs have all been linked to sleep loss and shown to affect business results.

What’s more, as reported by McKinsey in the article “The Organizational Cost of Insufficient Sleep,” there’s a host of psychosocial and cognitive problems that have been linked to sleep loss, including impaired attention, concentration, creativity, learning and memory, decision making, and relationship formation. Some studies have even shown that lack of sleep is associated with unethical behavior and have proposed specific pathways in the brain that may explain the connection.

Just as important, however, as how sleep affects work — maybe more important — is how work affects sleep, points out Canadian researcher Julian Barling, author of the forthcoming book Work and Sleep.

Chronic overtime, excessive workloads, shift work, expectations to be “always on,” and a culture that diminishes sleep all have been shown to contribute to the widespread problem of worker sleep loss.

Researchers from the University of Washington and University of Michigan recently published a whitepaper, Why it Pays to Ensure Adequate Sleep for Your Employees. The authors point to the prevalence of the problem:

The average person needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night. When surveyed, about 29.9% of Americans stated that they had gotten less than 6 hours of sleep the previous night.

Okay, we get it. Lack of sleep is widespread and undermines the wellbeing of workers and organizations. What can we do about it?

Typically, well-meaning employers wheel out their usual wellness strategies to get employees to change their sleep habits:

  • Education about sleep hygiene, with tips like
    • Don’t eat large meals before bed
    • Establish a consistent schedule for going to bed and getting up
    • Limit nighttime use of lit devices, like phones and computers
    • Use your bedroom exclusively for sleeping and sex
  • Apps and web-based modules, like the cognitive behavioral therapy-based Sleep.io
  • Behavioral change programs that include goal setting, tracking, and rewards

But employers should first look at themselves, and how they create or facilitate the conditions that lead to sleep loss. These are the factors the employer can control, and only once they’ve committed to organizational changes as a primary solution can the benefit of behavioral change strategies be fully realized.

What changes should employers consider? The McKinsey authors also published an article in Harvard Business Review, in which they suggest some ideas for starters:

Evaluate and rework company policies to ensure that they encourage — or at least don’t discourage — a good night’s sleep. Look at policies covering travel, email (e.g., blackout time on email, after which no emails can be sent), team working (creating tag teams that enable employees to hand work to each other across time zones), work-time limits (setting limits on hours or creating blackout periods), mandatory work-free vacations, predictable time off, napping rooms, and smart technology that improves sleep management.

Flexible schedules might seem like a slam-dunk solution, but University of Washington researcher Christopher Barnes found they often backfire, according to a BBC article. Due to cultural biases that favor early risers, flexible schedules prompt workers to start their days too early for their own natural sleep and wakefulness rhythms. One of the sources cited in the article estimates that 70% of workers typically wake up too early to achieve optimal performance during their work day.

Multiple studies, the BBC reported, have found “that workers who adjusted their work schedule to their individual biological clocks were more productive, healthier and less tired both at work and in their free time.”

Nominal, short-term sleep loss — like the kind many of us experience in the days following the switch to Daylight Savings Time — can lead to big problems. According to one study, for example, workers sleep on average 40 minutes less, compared to  other days, on the Monday after turning clocks an hour forward. An accompanying study found  3.6 more mining injuries each year on these Mondays, with absenteeism data indicating that these injuries tended to be especially severe.

How much sleep did you get last night? How alert and well rested do you feel right now?