Fitness for work: desktop dreamers

How did you sleep last night? If you spent hours tossing and turning, you are not alone. UK workers put in more hours than any other European nation, but still have the lowest levels of productivity, according to the London School of Economics.

And the reason for this may be staring us in the face. We are exhausted. While the French, Italians and Spanish still build a working day around lunch and even a siesta, and the Germans are the most frequent nappers in Europe, we Brits believe that all you need to keep going is coffee – or perhaps a chocolate bar.

What’s more, if we work long hours and arrive home late, we don’t give ourselves time to unwind, perpetuating the cycle of poor sleep. UK workers not only work longer than their European counterparts – they also have the highest rates of insomnia.

Sleep deprivation

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Loughborough are looking at the issue of sleep deprivation and whether UK workers are getting enough. Issues they are addressing include the effectiveness of an afternoon nap as a substitute for more an extra hour’s sleep at night, wakefulness in the evening, and whether caffeine helps eliminate tiredness or just delays the effects.

What complicates sleep issues is that they can be interlinked with so many other conditions, all of which can affect our performance at work.

Obstructive sleep apnoea, which disrupts the breathing of sufferers while they are sleeping, is the most common cause of daytime sleepiness, and is directly linked to being obese. Currently, just over one-third of Britons are overweight, but this problem is predicted to get more severe as workers become increasingly sedentary. Other contributing factors include smoking and excessive alcohol, according to the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association (BSSAA).

Not only is the immediate result of such disturbed sleep tiredness and irritability, it is also associated with heart disease and depression.

“HR professionals should be aware of sleep problems,” says Marianne Davey, director of the BSSAA. “There are more than 80 known sleep disorders, from not being able to get to sleep to the inability to stay awake, and these are often confused with staff just being lazy or leading inappropriate lifestyles. But all of these conditions can be suitably controlled, given the right treatment. HR staff should be more aware of these, and able to give advice as to where to go for help.”

Bad habits

According to Les Smith, managing director of consultancy Health and Wellbeing, disturbed sleep should not be looked at in isolation. Bad habits such as smoking, drinking and failing to exercise are all part of the mix, he says.

“Poor sleep places you at high risk of many other major illnesses. It affects energy, relationships and overall wellbeing.” So organisations should factor sleep into any policy on employee health, he suggests.

Dr Peter Mills, medical director of workplace consultancy Vielife, says: “There is no doubt that sleep is fundamentally important to the way we do our jobs each day. If you lack sleep, you lack the ability to lay down new information and, therefore, to learn or use this in a dynamic way.”

But what can HR realistically do to improve workers’ quality of sleep?

Providing good information about the health risks of poor sleep – and the benefits of getting enough of it – is a starting point, but organisations should also protect employees against the worst effects of exhaustion, especially in sectors where staff are required to drive or operate machinery.

And from April, employers who ignore the importance of encouraging staff to get sufficient sleep could land themselves in hot water, as the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act becomes law.

This will mean employers could be found responsible for fatal car accidents if they are caused by employees driving vehicles on company business. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reports that one in three road accidents are caused by drivers on business journeys. And one in five accidents are caused by people falling asleep at the wheel.

If we don’t get enough rest, we build up a harmful ‘sleep debt’, say researchers at Stanford University. Experts stress that sleep deprivation is highly dangerous, citing the examples of the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 and the aborted launching of the Challenger space shuttle, both arguably caused by tired staff.

Power nap

Airlines are already well aware of the link between sleep and performance. Last year, a British Airways pilot delayed a return flight from Delhi (after consultation with his managers) because he and his flight crew had had a disturbed night in a noisy hotel and he did not believe they were fit to fly. He insisted they all slept before take-off.

The airline also encourages its flight crew to nap while taking breaks from the controls and employs a ‘sleep consultant’, Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre.

The good news is that a daytime power nap can dramatically boost performance. A study by US space agency Nasa found that naps benefit working memory, although its research also revealed that naps are not effective as a replacement for a good night’s sleep.

US firms such as Nike are also taking this seriously. The sports and leisurewear company offers staff relaxation rooms with soothing music, massage chairs and aromatherapy machines. And napping is an accepted feature of business life in Japan – business executives in Tokyo can rent sleep pods by the hour.

British companies are more cautious, however. US firm Metronaps, which supplies sleep pods and a consultancy service offering advice about sleep, arrived in the UK last year, but most of its clients have been leisure centres. The Lawn Tennis Association is a client, but so far has made the sleep pods available only to players and not to its own staff.

Obviously, employers do not want to give staff carte blanche to doze off at work. And while a nap of less than 45 minutes has been shown to boost concentration and energy, longer periods of sleep can leave us groggy and disorientated.

According to sleep researcher Dr Sara Mednick, author of Take a nap and change your life, the length of time we sleep influences the type of sleep we experience. The three types of sleep are ‘stage two sleep’, slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. A perfect nap will include all of these, and the best time to take it is between 1pm and 3pm.

If you still have doubts about the connection between sleep and productivity, consider the roll call of famous daytime nappers. They include Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Lance Armstrong, Margaret Thatcher, Napoleon Bonaparte, John F Kennedy, Ellen MacArthur and Salvador Dali.

And Winston Churchill summed the whole thing up nicely: “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That is a foolish notion held by people with no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more.”

Sleep facts: what HR can do

  • Provide good information about the value of sleep.
  • Improve working styles – a long-hours culture leads to poorer sleep.
  • Be aware that constant tiredness can be a symptom of serious illness.
  • Ensure that staff working night shifts soon return to normal sleep patterns.
  • Develop a policy on driving and rest for staff.
  • Consider providing a relaxation or nap room.

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