The pandemic and, now, the cost of living crisis have played havoc with our sleep patterns, leaving many tossing and turning anxiously in the small hours. Poor sleep, however, can be damaging for health and affect productivity, safety and performance at work. Gosia Bowling outlines four ways in which employers and OH can work together to help.
The worries and anxieties of the pandemic and, now, the cost of living crisis, have left many of us needing a good (or much better) night’s sleep.
A recent survey of 8,000 UK adults for Nuffield Health concluded that nearly three-quarters were reporting poorer sleep compared to last year.
This is especially concerning given that our 2022 ‘Healthier Nation Index’ also revealed that one person in 10 is only getting between two to four hours of sleep per night.
The number of people experiencing insomnia has risen to one in four since the pandemic, with many turning to the internet for support. Google searches for ‘insomnia’ soared, with most made in the early hours, or around 3am.
According to our research, 35-44-year-olds get the least sleep, with almost 50% only getting five to six hours per night. Only 33% get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
These findings are especially pertinent during ‘Sleeptember’ this month, run by the Sleep Charity, which focuses on promoting better sleep quality.
Sleep and work
Sleep deprivation is believed to cost the UK economy £37bn a year in lost productivity, with poor sleepers having reduced reaction times and trouble concentrating.
Poor sleepers also have an increased likelihood of having accidents or making costly mistakes, highlighting both a need and an opportunity to provide people with sleep hygiene support in UK workplaces.
Ultimately, chronically disrupted sleep increases the risk of work absence by 171%. However, just over half of people don’t believe quality sleep builds immunity.
Many businesses, of course, have adopted hybrid working since the pandemic. But it is important to note this “new normal” won’t automatically facilitate perfect, or even just better, sleeping patterns.
That’s why it is crucial employers “wake up” to the importance of good sleep and work with their healthcare providers to support their workforce.
Taking a holistic view on health – including offering interventions that cover the full range of risks – is the only way to get back to maximum wellbeing and create a healthier nation.
Here, then, are four relatively simple ways that employers – helped and guided by their occupational health teams – can play their part in creating holistic health interventions to enhance sleep quality among their workers.
1) Outline expectations
Businesses tend to overvalue individuals who undervalue sleep. However, for those looking to maximise employee potential and nurture a positive, productive workforce, it’s important to reduce the business and health risks of sleep deprivation.
Employers should outline their expectations from the outset. This means defining working hours and letting employees know they aren’t expected to reply to emails outside of them.
Employees should also be encouraged to work around their natural sleep patterns where possible, for example, avoiding scheduling early-morning or late-evening calls.
2) Train for triggers
Just as important as it is to lead a company with a sleep-positive attitude, it is essential managers can spot the signs of a sleep-deprived co-worker in their teams.
For example, are mood swings, poor attention, or distraction common among certain team members? Are they yawning and drinking copious amounts of coffee to get through the day? These can all be signs of a poor night’s sleep.
Line managers should be able to spot signs and be trained to guide co-workers to access the appropriate occupational health services available.”
Line managers should be able to spot these signs and be trained to guide co-workers to access the appropriate occupational health services available.
Ensure any training given to team leaders is evidence-based so the company understands why incorporating sleep support is important and should be part of the company’s core values.
Appropriate training may also include helping people understand how to structure their day, like avoiding putting in potentially stressful meetings late in the afternoon, when they risk taking the stress home with them when their body needs to relax.
3) Promote better physical health
It is also important to emphasise the benefits of exercise in regulating sleep patterns, just not right before bed, as we remain in an ‘activated’ mode for a while after exercising, making it difficult to sleep.
Instead, an outdoor run or power walk during lunch hours not only gets employees away from their desks but also exposes them to natural daylight, promoting healthy sleep hormones.
Employers who are concerned that their teams are not taking healthy breaks or are reluctant to switch-off may even consider arranging group exercise classes. For example, inviting a fitness instructor to run a lunchtime session over a video call and letting employees know they’re encouraged to attend.
It’s important to lead by example and announcing directors and managers will be attending these sessions can boost uptake throughout the wider company.
Offering advice around nutrition and caffeine can help individuals make healthier choices, avoiding unhealthy habits which may exacerbate feelings of tiredness or fatigue, or stimulants that have the opposite effect, raising their heart rate and making them especially alert, interfering with rest and sleep.
4) Offer specialist support
Stress from outside the world of work – like finances, addiction, or family problems – can negatively affect sleep.
Our research has shown fewer people with lower household incomes (£15,000 or less) get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night than those on the highest incomes (over £75,000). This suggests having lower financial resources may have a knock-on impact on people’s sleeping patterns.
The relationship between mental health and sleep isn’t entirely understood but, according to neurochemistry studies, an adequate night’s sleep helps enhance mental and emotional resilience equally.
Chronic sleep disruptions might generate negative thinking and emotional sensibility. It’s also thought treating insomnia may help alleviate the symptoms associated with an anxiety disorder and vice versa.
Where signs of emotional difficulty are identified, employers should signpost individuals towards the relevant emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include offering cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or employee assistance programmes (EAPs), which can provide individuals with direct access to specialists.
Some of the confidential support they receive may help employees to address the factors keeping them awake at night. Or help employees recognise and break unhelpful thought patterns which trigger anxiety and stress preventing sleep.
Additional employer support may include inviting a sleep specialist to run an online seminar on best practice habits before bed. This can include simple tips such as avoiding blue light devices and keeping the bed for sleep only – not work.