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The economic costs of insufficient sleep

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The detrimental effect of modern lifestyle on sleep is a widely considered phenomenon, from 24-hour connectivity to the physiological effects of blue light.

This is compounded by the fact that modern working practices at many organisations are placing insufficient value on sleep as a health and productivity risk. Often working longer hours and subsequently sleeping less is perceived instead as a positive, and a badge of honour for employees to aspire to in order to be more productive. 

So why is this the case? Part of the reason is that, unlike with lifestyle choices such as physical activity, smoking and nutrition, there is less clarity on how sleep impacts health and productivity. VitalityHealth’s data from Britain's Healthiest Workplace suggests that the optimal level of sleep is between seven and eight hours a night, with people who sleep less than this losing nearly five additional days of productive time each year. This suggests a strong business case for encouraging employees to successfully manage their sleep patterns.

It's about the quantity and the quality of sleep

However, managing sleep presents an employer with a unique set of complexities. First, it is not simply a case of getting enough hours of sleep - both quantity and quality of sleep have a significant impact, with poor quality sleep undermining many potential health benefits. Second, a range of factors can influence sleep, such as lifestyle choices, physical health and mental wellbeing. Identifying the root cause of poor sleep behaviours can therefore prove to be a challenge. Third, the relationship between sleep and health is bi-directional - sleep can be both a cause and an effect of poor lifestyle choices. 

On the one hand those who don’t sleep well can lack the energy and motivation to engage in healthy lifestyle activities; on the other, people engaging in unhealthy lifestyles are missing out on the benefits of improved health, which can include better sleep. Last, while seven to eight hours of sleep is viewed as the ideal, people often fail to recognise that both too little, and too much sleep, can have a negative impact on health and productivity. 

What can be done? While we are improving our understanding of the importance of a good night’s sleep, effective interventions in this sphere are arguably still lacking. Employers can have a profound impact on their staff’s sleep patterns by promoting an effective work-life balance, providing support for physical and mental wellbeing and promoting a healthier lifestyle. 

Through the Vitality wellness programme, we have seen that healthier people sleep better, and that making healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising regularly, aids good sleep. Investing in workplace wellness interventions can provide a number of benefits – they are often perceived as a valuable employee benefit; they provide employers with a way to positively engage with their staff; and they directly enhance health and productivity.

Shaun Subel

By Shaun Subel

Shaun is the strategy director at VitalityHealth

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