Sleeping on the job

Getting a good night’s sleep is an important, but overlooked, aspect of employee wellbeing. Sally O’Reilly burns the midnight oil.

Sleep – are you getting enough? If not, every aspect of your life is likely to suffer, including your work performance. And while HR professionals may feel they cannot be expected to have an influence on how much and how well their colleagues are sleeping, the fact is that when it comes to boosting performance, promoting healthy sleeping is just as effective as spreading the word about healthy eating, taking exercise and cutting back on alcohol and nicotine.

Side effects

About a quarter of adults have insomnia, according to research first published in the British Journal of Hospital Medicine, while 20% have troublesome snoring, and 3% suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome – a condition that stops air entering the lungs during sleep and causes daytime sleepiness.

Les Smith, managing director of healthcare consultants Health and Wellbeing, says disturbed sleep should not be looked at in isolation. It is connected to a number of destructive habits, including failing to take enough exercise, an unhealthy diet, drinking too much alcohol and smoking. This in turn increases the risk of serious health problems.

“Poor sleep places you at high risk of heart disease, depression and many other major illnesses,” says Smith.

“It affects energy, relationships and overall wellbeing. And the evidence is that to be healthy and perform effectively, we need between seven and eight hours’ sleep a night,” he adds.

We increase our chances of developing disturbed sleep patterns by ‘running on empty’ and over-working, failing to take breaks or drink enough water, and so on, he says. And our bodies respond accordingly. For instance, having difficulty getting off to sleep is a sign of anxiety, while early waking is a sign of depression, according to Smith.


While a good night’s sleep may seem desirable, until now, it has been difficult to assess exactly how your sleep patterns measure up, and whether they are cause for concern. Now, however, a tool has been developed to do just that.

The My Sleep Programme tool has been created by specialist consultancy Wellbeing4business UK in association with the Sleep Centre at Loughborough University, the Sleep Council, the Sleep Foundation, and the Royal Society of Medicine.

Launched last week (8 November), it is an online system that enables people to quickly assess their sleep habits and provides guidance on how to overcome any issues flagged up. It asks some basic questions about sleep patterns, offers ideas and suggestions about how to sleep better, and outlines a personalised sleep programme. It takes around 10 minutes to complete.

Issues covered include snoring, sleep apnoea, narcolepsy (randomly falling into a deep sleep), restless legs, early waking and interrupted sleep, anxiety and depression, and medical illnesses that affect sleep, as well as problems caused by factors such as shift work, jet lag, medication and caring for children. It also includes suggestions for employees who drive, operate machinery or care for other individuals.


Mark Holt-Rogers, director of Wellbeing4business, says: “If you are ill, sleep is one of the first things to go. The link between lack of sleep and accidents at work is well established, and about 20% of motorway accidents are sleep-related. And it’s not only the quantity of sleep that is important, but the quality.”

Whether HR professionals can persuade employees to revise their sleeping habits, and whether knowing that you have a sleep problem and being given tips on how to deal with it will actually have any beneficial effect, remain to be tested.

Reader offer

Free trial of the MySleep Programme for three employees in your organisation – to take up the offer or for more information, e-mail

Wellbeing in brief….

Mental health still taboo

Admitting to a mental health problem at work is still seen as risky by most staff, according to a study. The survey by disability insurer UnumProvident found persistent and widespread stigma about mental illness, with 77% of staff believing that admitting to any kind of problem would jeopardise their prospects. Common problems such as stress, depression and anxiety were still taboo for many, with older workers the most concerned about being “labelled”.

Holiday recovery time

Some 1.7 million British staff have to take time off to recover from their holidays, new research has suggested. The study from The Benenden Healthcare Society found that workers and employers often counted the cost of holidays once they returned to work, with illnesses or accidents picked up while abroad the most common reasons for absence. Some 10.6 million working days were lost to post holiday-related absence, with a third of people being absent for two weeks or more.

Improving workforce health

The government is calling on businesses, occupational health (OH) and the medical profession to come up with ideas about how to improve the health of Britain’s working population. This is part of a review being carried out by ‘health tsar’ Dame Carol Black. A key element of the review – due to be published early in the New Year – will be what constitutes effective OH provision, and how it can be made available to all. A website has been set up, and Black will be hosting a series of events around the country.

In November issue of Occupational Health

How the NMC is failing OH nurses

Personnel Today’s sister publication, Occupational Health, is a monthly magazine dedicated to keeping you on top of occupational health issues. To subscribe, go to, or call 01444 445566.

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