What really happens when workers don't get enough sleep?

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Inadequate sleep is a public health problem affecting more than one in three adults worldwide. This could lead to huge economic consequences.

Inadequate sleep is a public health problem affecting more than one in three adults worldwide. This could lead to huge economic consequences.

Most of us appreciate, at least intuitively, that poorer levels of sleep impair us physically and cognitively. We are also used to hearing that seven or eight hours of sleep a night is recommended.

One of the main reasons behind sleep deprivation is what we increasingly call ‘social jetlag’. Put simply, social jetlag is the experience of having greatly different sleeping habits outside of work, compared to the working week.

It’s a socially accepted habit. Yet research increasingly indicates that it is bad for our health and
wellbeing. Contrary to the concept of ‘catching up on sleep’, the narrower the difference in a person’s waking times – particularly between weekdays and weekends – the better for mind and body.

Social jetlag seems to be part of a larger trend: many people are simply not getting enough sleep, or the right quality of sleep. This is a worldwide epidemic, and apart from the
impact that insufficient sleep has on well-being this can come at huge economic costs through its destructive effects on health, safety and productivity. 

There are a number of individual factors associated with not getting enough sleep such as lifestyle factors, personal issues/concerns and workplace pressures, such as increasing pressure and stress levels, longer working hours and shift work. Lockton’s recent survey reports 31% of workers consider irregular working hours to negatively impact productivity and quality of output.

So how does sleep deprivation affect those on shift work and what about those working in offshore environments, who are on long shifts and away from family for a number of weeks? These employees work 12 hour shifts for 2 to 3 weeks, or sometimes longer, at a time. Workers can have disrupted work patterns, often switching between day and night shifts within
the same trip.

How does this affect productivity and employee wellbeing? Employees will likely experience a change to their waking and sleeping hours when they first go offshore, again with any changes to their rota whilst away and then again on readjustment to life back onshore. This could be further impacted by any overtime required whilst on shift meaning employees could be sleeping 6 hours or less a night.

It’s not just offshore/shift workers who could potentially be suffering sleep impairment. Many
employees are often required to be available outside office hours and this added pressure could
be causing sleep deprivation which is likely to be affecting employee’s mental health in the workplace.

Consider: when clocks in the Northern hemisphere go forward an hour in March, there is a frightening spike in cardiovascular problems the following day, according to a tabulation of millions of daily hospital records. Conversely, when clocks move back an hour in the autumn, rates of cardiovascular problems plummet the day after.

A similar rise-and-fall relationship can be seen with the number of traffic accidents.

Unfortunately, the leading causes of disease and death in developed nations – such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes and cancer – all have casual links to a lack of sleep.

Chronic sleep restriction – to just six hours per night – might reduce one’s cognitive performance as much as if you went without sleep for two whole nights. Research shows that long hours of sustained wakefulness can result in behavioural changes equivalent to drinking two glasses of wine. Diminished cognitive performance can have huge repercussions for employees whose jobs demand critical attention to detail.

Just one or two weeks of sleep curtailment can result in increased appetite and food intake; decreased insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance; impaired immune response to vaccination; reduced ability to resist infection, and mood disturbances.

Even if employees say and think they are okay, they might not be: self-reported sleepiness ratings by individuals subjected to chronic sleep restriction showed they were largely unaware of the increasing cognitive deficits.

Poor sleep management unsurprisingly affects companies’ bottom-line. The cost of insufficient sleep is $50 billion a year in the UK, $60 billion in Germany and $411 billion in the US, estimated a study by the global policy think tank Rand Corporation.

Conclusion
Many organisations, invest extensively in health and wellbeing interventions and promote a strong employee health culture. However, the importance of sleep management is possibly being underestimated – thereby undermining many other well-intentioned initiatives (this is particularly true of those companies with shift workers).

For example, offering workers gym membership and support for healthier eating is helpful for weight management, but if a long-hours culture and poor sleep management is leading to increased appetite and desire to eat, then these interventions may be masking the basic problem.

Another increasing trend is to allow workers to work remotely, to reduce commuting time and give individuals more flexibility about how and when they work. However, this may increase the occurrence of social jet lag, with occasional work-from-home employees potentially rising later than when they are in the office.

In other words, if companies are not adequately supporting employees’ efforts to sleep well, they may be opening up the ground underneath many of their wellness measures.
For individuals, it is advisable to set a consistent waking time, limit the use of electronic devices before bedtime, limit the consumption of substances that may impair sleep quality and maintain a good exercise regime.

For employers, it’s advisable to recognise the importance of sleep and their role in its promotion; provide facilities and amenities that help employees with sleep hygiene, and discourage the extended use of electronic devices.

There is an increasing need to improve education about the role and science of sleep and its impact on performance. Failure to address this issue may greatly reduce employee wellbeing – and a company’s market competitiveness.

However, sleep is just one part of the puzzle and it should be taken into account with other risk factors when Companies are building their health and wellbeing strategies to manage their human capital risks.

For more information contact Carolyn McVey on:
t: +44 (0) 1224 957 809
e: carolyn.mcvey@uk.lockton.com