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The power of sleep

Posted on by from AXA PPP

Sleep is a crucial part of our daily lives. It affects our cognitive ability, our mental health and our physical wellbeing. As a leader, are you considering this?

Sleep tight

Sleep isn’t often an issue that comes up in the boardroom. Yet its impact is huge – it has profound effects on behavior and performance so there could be a significant productivity boost to your organisation’s productivity if employees who aren’t sleeping well would change to healthier sleeping habits. 

Adults generally need to sleep between seven and nine hours a night though this varies from person to person and depends on a number of factors, including lifestyle, age and genetic make-up. Having the odd bad night’s sleep is not much of a concern but long term sleep impairment can lead to a number of complications, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes (2) Not getting enough sleep can also lead to moodiness and irritability – not the most conducive qualities for a happy, productive team.

Poor sleep is undoubtedly an issue for employers – for example, UK workers lose between eight and nine days of work every year due to lack of sleep, according to the findings of a 2015 poll of 2500 people conducted by Big Health (3). For those suffering from insomnia, the figure is almost double at 14.6 lost work days a year. The study also showed that poor sleep adversely affects respondents’ concentration (46%), ability to complete work (38 per cent) and staying awake during the day (27%). In addition, Paul Kelley (a clinical research associate at the University of Oxford's Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute) has suggested that a ‘normal’ 9am to 5.30pm working day may be unsuitable and lead to sleep deprivation for younger workers as these hours as they don’t align well with their naturally occurring biological waking and sleeping rhythms(4).

As an employer, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to adapt you business’ working hours to accommodate everyone’s nocturnal needs. But HR professionals can make a positive difference when it comes to raising awareness of employees in their organisations of the importance of good sleep and encouraging employees to think twice about staying up late too often when an early night would be better.

How can we sleep better?

Encouraging good sleep hygiene is the best way to ensure your employees are getting enough sleep. Employers may also wish to consider the following suggestions to help their employees to sleep well:

•    Stay active during the day. It’s recommended that adults undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week. Exercise does wonders for many ailments and it can also tire a person out, helping them to fall asleep more easily at the end of the day. Could your company offer a discounted gym membership, lunchtime walks or a cycle to work scheme to help employees keep active? Exercise also helps to alleviate stress and can boost psychological wellbeing and resilience. 

•    Eat and drink well. Eating just before going to bed can delay getting to sleep. As a part of their commitment to promoting a good work/life balance, employers should encourage employees to go home on time so that they have enough time for a good meal and time to relax afterwards. Drinking caffeine up to six hours before going to bed can also disrupt sleep quality. Could employers encourage their workforce to prefer caffeine-free drinks after 3pm? 

•    Avoid energy ‘pick me ups’. Energy boosting drinks can lead to a subsequent dip in blood sugar levels, leading to feelings of lethargy and fatigue. Consider whether you can encourage employees to drink healthier alternatives when at work. 

•    Sharing concerns. Stress can be a major disrupter of sleep. Lack of sleep can also be a sign of mental illness such as anxiety and depression. In order to help employees who are experiencing issues with their mental health, it’s important for employers to have fostered a positive, supportive workplace culture where employees can be confident to talk openly with their managers about their worries without fear of being judged or disadvantaged. To make this a reality, line managers must be properly trained and supported to have such conversations and know how to guide employees who come to them for help to suitable support such as the counselling services provided by an employee assistance programme, helplines provided by mental health charities such as AnxietyUK and Mind as well as to their own GP. Ensuring that your line managers are equipped to identify and respond to signs of psychological distress and that your employees know and trust that they can count on their manager’s support can help to prevent potential problems from spiralling into more serious ones. 

Supporting good sleep hygiene should be an integral part of any employer’s health and wellbeing programme. Though it may be a challenge for HR professionals to broach the subject, being attentive to and advocating good quality sleep will help to ensure your employees maintain a good work-life balance and should, in turn, help to boost their performance and productivity. 

References

1 Health and Safety Executive (2006). Managing shift work – health and safety guidance:
http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/hsg256.pdf 

2 NHS Choices. Why lack of sleep is bad for your health: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/tiredness-and-fatigue/Pages/lack-of-sleep-health-risks.aspx 

3 Natasha Hinde (2015). Sleep deprivation results in workers spending eight days off sick every year, survey finds. Huffington Post UK:
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/12/21/workers-spend-eight-days-off-sick-every-year-due-to-poor-sleep_n_8852992.html

4 Emine Saner (2015). Wake-up call: could later working starts get more out of young apprentices? The Guardian:
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2015/sep/09/why-you-should-start-work-at-10am-unless-youre-in-your-50s

5 Physical activity guidelines for adults. NHS Choices:
http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/physical-activity-guidelines-for-adults.aspx

Mark Winwood

By Mark Winwood

Director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare.

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