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You Snooze You… Win? Why Sleep Matters and What Organizations Can Do About it

 

By Joe Sherwood

Contrary to popular belief, snoozing does not cause losing. In fact, it may be necessary to sustain winning, or even life. On an individual level, research has shown that insufficient sleep can hurt a person’s general health, cardiovascular health, mental health (including mood regulation), immunologic health, the experience of pain, risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, appetite regulation, and that’s right, how long you live. Aside from a long list of negative health consequences, not getting enough sleep can also spell disaster for organizations. From moderately problematic to deathly serious, the consequences are far reaching; but in a fast-paced, corporate environment, sleep is often treated like the red-headed step child of life-sustaining resources, often ignored or put off until sleepiness or fatigue involuntarily seize control of the body. In a work context, this can be very costly, dangerous, and even fatal. This article uses academic research findings to explain how sleep works, offers recommendations on how much sleep is ideal, describes how sleep-deprivation harms individuals and organizations, and provides a framework for how organizations can help their employees get a good night’s rest.

 

How Does Sleep Work?

Though the precise mechanisms for understanding sleep’s relationship to health and performance aren’t entirely understood, it’s known that sleep functions along predictable cycles that rely on the body’s internal biological clock, called circadian rhythms, to heal and refresh. Research shows that sleep ignites several restorative processes like clearing the brain of metabolites, muscle repair, and regulating mood; it’s a catalyst for memory consolidation, and is also critically involved in immune and hormone function, among others.

 

How Much Should a Person Sleep?

While the recommended amount of sleep varies, experts agree that between 7-9 hours is ideal for health and optimal performance.i  And though getting too much sleep can also have some negative consequences, it may be becoming a moot point. Trends reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that the amount of sleep Americans get has been in a 27+ year decline, where the number of U.S adults sleeping fewer than 6 hours during a 24-hour period has almost doubled, from 38.6 million to 70.1 million. The CDC considers this trend to be a public health epidemic. And this problem is not unique to the U.S. For example, a recent survey conducted by the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare showed that between 30-40 percent of Japanese men between the ages of 20-50 years, report not being able to sleep due to the stresses caused by work.

 

Why Should Organizations Care About Sleep?

Studying the effect of sleep deprivation on organizational health and functioning is a relatively recent development, joining a growing trend to study the relationships between things that happen outside work and things that happen at work. Outlined below are several studies that have already shown how not getting enough sleep can really hurt employees and the companies they work for:

  • Mood and Interpersonal Conflict

Research shows that tired employees have a harder time recognizing when others are slightly upset or happy. This finding is especially relevant for jobs where recognizing and effectively responding to another’s emotions is vital to job success (sales, customer service, health care, etc.). It shouldn’t be surprising that sleep deprivation can also make people feel less cheerful and happy, even depressed, but research has shown that it also can make people less satisfied with their jobs and work schedules. On the flip side, getting a good night’s sleep leads to a good mood the following morning, and having a positive sense of purpose. Stemming from the problems of poor emotional control and overall grumpiness, it’s also possible that coworker, manager-employee, and employee-customer relationships suffer when there’s not enough sleep to go around. For example, one study found that tired employees were less trusting of others, and more likely to make emotionally charged decisions. Another study showed that getting more sleep can help employees be more willing to help out a coworker.

  • Withdrawal and Deviant Behaviors

Studies have shown that employees who don’t get enough sleep show up late for work more often, take more days off work for health reasons, and are more likely to take longer-term sickness leave. Sleepy workers are also more likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, which have been shown to negatively impact performance, and increase the likelihood of theft, destruction of property, misuse of information, time, or resources, increase unsafe behaviors, and drive poor quality work. People also tend to make worse decisions while sleepy, and are more likely to check personal emails and casually browse the web while on the clock.

  • Productivity and Performance

Because sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the brain’s ability to process information, pay attention, stay alert, learn new things, remember old things, and switch between tasks, it’s no wonder significant losses in work productivity and job performance have been shown. ,xi For example, research has shown that being sleepy on the job leads to worse performance monitoring, worse error recognition and correction, lower reaction times, and response accuracy. Sleepy workers are more likely to miss or gloss over important details, and have a harder time multi-tasking. Studies have also shown that sleepy students earn lower grades than their well-rested peers. For agile corporate environments that depend on learning new things to manage change and adapt to new challenges and strategies, sleep is especially important given studies show it’s harder to learn new things, and unlearn old things when employees haven’t had enough sleep.

  • Safety and Accidents

Perhaps one of the more costly and serious consequences of sleep deprivation is its link to unsafe behavior. Studies have shown that sleepy people make riskier decisions, are less able to detect visual cues, and have slower reaction times. One study showed that even losing a single hour of sleep led to more workplace accidents among miners.Among the more serious consequences, research has shown that disturbed sleep can cause accidental death at work, and increased risk of a work injury. Research has also shown that sleepiness leads to more vehicle accidents, including commercial vehicles. Working long days or night shifts has also been shown to lead to more accidents, including on the drive home from work. This is unsurprising since research has shown that drowsy driving is, in many ways, no safer than drunk driving.xix Yet while companies and societies have strict policies around alcohol consumption and operation of machinery and vehicles (including rental cars), far fewer have policies around sleep.

Research shows a clear link between poor sleep and employee and organizational health and functioning, demonstrating that the problem of sleep deprivation deserves attention and resources. Many organizations have already recognized the problem, and have attempted to actively encourage and support positive sleep habits amongst their workforces. The following section discusses various approaches that can be taken by organizations to address the problem of sleep-deprivation.

 

What Can Organizations Do to Help?

Many researchers have discussed steps organizations can take to improve their health and performance by addressing the problem of poor employee sleep quality and quantity. While several unique approaches for improving employee sleep have been tried, few have been empirically tested, and far fewer of these approaches have been through the rigors and peer-review processes associated with academic publishing. Due to the influence of larger social, economic, or political systems, and added to the issue of potentially limited resources, not every approach can or should be adopted by every organization. Most organizations require and depend on employees to travel long-distances, or transport goods and deliver services at night, so shiftwork and jetlag are unfortunate realities organizations must deal with. Regardless, several options exist to remedy the negative consequences of sleep-deprivation, and help support more positive sleep habits. Note that as sleep-targeted wellness initiatives are a relatively new thing, some of the following suggestions still lack solid empirical support:

 

Raise Awareness

One thing all organizations can and should do is raise awareness within the company about why sleep is important and what steps can be taken to improve sleep quality and quantity. It’s important that both organizational leaders and employees understand the importance of sleep for any approach to be effective. To raise awareness, consider the following:

  • Offer employee trainings on the topic of sleep. Trainings could include discussions on why sleep is important, what causes a lack of quality sleep, and/or individual habits and behaviors (i.e., sleep hygiene) that contribute to a good sleep routine.
  • Offer managerial trainings on how to be supportive of employee sleep (not emailing late at night, verbally encouraging good sleep habits, supporting a good work-life balance, etc.).
  • Embrace and encourage a positive sleep culture and supportive social engagement around the topic of sleep. For example, a substantial body of literature has shown the benefits associated with napping. While napping at work has generally been a taboo behavior, organizations could benefit greatly by encouraging strategic naps while on the job. Even a quick snooze has been shown to lead to performance increases.
  • Enable employees to track their own sleep data to increase awareness by offering wearable devices that track and record sleep activity.

 

Alter Work Schedules or Environments

Research shows that maintaining a consistent day and night work-schedule helps employees maintain their circadian rhythms, and improve sleep.xxiv Working during the day, and sleeping at night is preferable. In addition to matching our natural circadian rhythms, there are many positive health benefits of having an active social life, which is more difficult to maintain if your days are spent sleeping and your nights are spent working. When working during the day is not possible, shoot for consistency. Research shows that consistent schedules and predictable routines act as triggers or signals that alert the body when it’s time to sleep by releasing important hormones, like melatonin, that make us feel tired.ii Other approaches to alter the work environment can also act as guardians of these circadian rhythms. A few examples are listed below:

  • Disable the sending and receiving of emails during set time periods (i.e., after business hours or between 12am-6am). More strict approaches could include disabling access to any workplace systems during non-work hours. Research shows that taking substantial breaks from work are necessary to recover from work stress, and sleep is an important tool for de-stressing. If employees know they cannot perform certain work tasks late at night, they may have an easier time detaching from work.
  • Install software that diminishes blue light closer to bed time. Blue light, a form of light commonly emitted from cell phones, tablets, and computer monitors has been shown to act like daylight, signaling the body that it is wake-time. Researchers recommend staying away from blue light before bed. For employees who must work late on a screen, software and applications can be installed which reduce the amount of blue light emitted from screens, which may help maintain circadian rhythms.
  • Install napping stations. In addition to be open to or embracing napping at work, some organizations have gone the extra mile by installing or designating napping areas. While research is still investigating the complexities of napping on the job, it seems a promising approach.

 

Target Work Stress

Research shows that features unique to a person’s job can create stress, and work stress has been shown to be a primary cause of employee sleep problems. Things such as having high time-pressures and heavy workloads can lead to significant work stress and make it difficult to get the appropriate amount of sleep. This lack of sleep can, in-turn, create performance deficiencies, thereby increasing work stress, and feeding into a destructive, chronically sleepless cycle. Thus, targeting stress through job design may indirectly help employees both sleep and perform better.

  • Give employees the appropriate time and resources to complete tasks.
  • When financial or instrumental resources are unavailable or limited, consider the power of emotional support and empathy. A lot of research shows that social support originating from managers and coworkers can help reduce or buffer the effects of job stress.
  • Provide employees with more control over how they accomplish their work. Research has shown that this autonomy reduces feelings of stress.

Note: For more information on job-related factors that stress employees out, see here.

 

Target Health and Wellness

In addition to targeting stress, programs that focus on other aspects of health and wellness can also improve sleep. Research shows that people sleep better when they eat a nutritionally balanced diet and exercise regularly. By including sleep as an important outcome measure of wellness programs (even when it is not specifically addressed), organizations will be better poised to understand which aspects of wellness programs are particularly effective for helping employees get the right amount and kind of sleep.

 

Conclusion

Sleep is vital for individual and organizational health and performance. It’s well established that sleep-deprivation can create problems for workplace relationships, employee and organizational performance, stress, mood, health, and safety and accidents, to name a few. These effects have a high cost to individuals, organizations, and society. Given the significant role that jobs and organizations play in the lives of individuals, including how well they sleep, it’s recommended that organizations dedicate time and resources to address and actively manage the problem. Some preliminary research suggests that approaches like raising awareness, altering work schedules and environments, and targeting work stress and health more generally, may be of help. For a deeper dive into the research, check out the following reviews. All three were instrumental in the writing of this article, and are highly recommended:

Author note: I did not verify the authenticity or empirical basis of two sources cited. Both were embedded as hyperlinks within the body of the article rather than as endnotes. One, a Huffington Post article provided prominent examples of workplace accidents caused by sleep. The other was a link to a Japanese news brief. While this news article did cite the original research, it was in Japanese and therefore unfamiliar to me.

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