Importance of Sleep in Relation to Workplace Wellness

Workplace wellness is an important and popular topic that has led to employers making big investments in employee well-being. Personalised wellness apps, physical activity challenges, nutrition education, and employee assistance programmes as just some of the ways that employers are supporting the physical and mental health of their employees. One area of focus that has received less attention is sleep, but sufficient sleep is an essential component of employee health.

Sleep deprivation presents considerable risks to health and well-being and also has costly consequences for organisations. Without enough sleep, overall well-being and productivity suffers. Economic losses in the UK due to insufficient sleep amount to 200,000 lost work days and $50 billion annually. [1] Sleep deprivation is much more dangerous than most people realise and has many negative effects on employees and the workplace:

Communication

When employees are tired they have more difficulty communicating and are less able to understand cues from other people or their environment. Tired workers are a danger to themselves and others and the highest rate of major workplace safety incidents is found among shift workers. It is well established that shift workers can experience serious fatigue due to lack of sleep or sleep cycle disruptions. Some of the most serious workplace accidents have been attributed to fatigue:  Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the Exxon Valdez. [2]

Performance

When workers are tired they are less likely to be vigilant and their response time to incidents also declines. Tried employees are often unable to detect that their job performance is declining, and it continues to worsen the longer they work under fatigue. Not only does job performance suffer when employees are sleep-deprived, but they also have decreased cognitive abilities and motor control. They may also have trouble focusing and keeping track of activity sequences. If employees are required to drive or operate machinery, their inability to pay attention and their decreased reaction time presents considerable risks. One study shows that after 17 to 19 hours without sleep, performance was equivalent or worse than that of a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.05 percent. [3]

Mistakes

When a sleep-deprived employee comes to work, the number of errors increases with the time spent working. Tired employees are prone to making mistakes of commission (performing an act that leads to harm) and omission (not performing an expected task). Both of these types of errors can impact workplace productivity and safety.

Emotions

Sleep-deprived individuals are often unengaged and withdrawn. They are prone to inappropriate outbursts that can negatively affect working relationships with colleagues. They may be unusually irritable, impatient, socially inappropriate, and uncooperative.  If unmitigated, these sorts of behaviours can lead to negative consequences for the workplace and the employee.

Risks

Cognitive studies have shown that sleep deprivation can result in higher levels of risk-taking behaviour. Not only are sleep-deprived individuals inclined to take more risks, they are also less likely to think rationally and logically. [4] In the workplace, sleep-deprived employees are more likely to make riskier decisions and minimise the possibility of negative consequences.

The link between sleep deprivation and motor and cognitive function is clear.  Sleep-deprived workers present major risks to themselves and others in the workplace and productivity levels and quality of work will be compromised.

The good news is that small changes can have a big impact. If people slept one more hour per night, it could add nearly $30 billion to the UK economy. [5] Sleep also has a significant impact on overall health and mortality. When people sleep better, they eat healthier, exercise more, and are better able to cope with stress. Improving employees’ sleep should be a part of every organisation’s wellness strategy. Employees physical and mental health will improve, they will be more productive, and the organisation will benefit from reduced absenteeism, workplace incidents, and healthcare costs.

[1] https://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/the-value-of-the-sleep-economy.html

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4525425/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1739867/pdf/v057p00649.pdf

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780124201682000302

[5] https://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/the-value-of-the-sleep-economy.html

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