Sleep is an important part of our overall health. But getting enough sleep is often easier said than done, especially during times of uncertainty and environmental change. And 2020 has certainly had its share of both: the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantine, massive unemployment, protests, heatwaves, hurricanes and tornadoes. On top of all that, it's an Election Year!
Lack of sleep, unfortunately, can lead to poor performance at work and have long-term health effects. Scheduling sleep should be as important as scheduling appointments and meeting deadlines. It’s important for employers to understand this issue and how they can support their employees in establishing a healthy sleep schedule.
The importance of quality sleep
Sleep is not just the time when your body and mind shut down. It's actually a key component of healing. Sleep has distinct stages that follow each other throughout the night in a predictable pattern. Brain functions stay active during each stage, but in distinctive and critical ways.
Although the need for sleep varies across individuals, most working adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. And quality is as important as quantity. When sleep is frequently disturbed or cut short, important brain activities are disrupted, leading to poor performance, bad moods and the onset of debilitating illness.
- Performance: We need sleep to think clearly, make complex decisions, learn quickly and create memories. Cutting back by even one hour can make it difficult to focus the next day. When someone lacks sleep, they’re more likely to make bad decisions, which can result in compromised job performance.
- Mood: Insufficient sleep can make people irritable and is linked to uncooperative behavior. People who chronically lack sleep are more likely to create tension on team projects and damage relationships with coworkers.
- Health: Consistently inadequate sleep increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and infections. Deep sleep triggers release of growth hormone, which boosts the repair of cells and tissues as part of a normal immune response. Other hormones released during sleep control the body’s fat storage. The less people sleep, the more likely they are to become obese and to develop diabetes.
How COVID-19 is impacting our sleep
As we all deal with the social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, insomnia has proliferated among employees and the general public. A recent survey by SleepStandards examined sleep habits of Americans between the ages of 18 and 79 before and after lockdown measures. Their findings included:
- 53% spend less time sleeping than before the pandemic.
- 67% believe their sleep was healthier before the beginning of lockdown.
- 98% have developed new sleep problems, even after lockdown measures were lifted.
Why are so many people having trouble sleeping? Experts offer the following explanations:
- Loss of daytime structure and routines disrupt normal sleep schedules and circadian rhythms, which signal the brain when it's time to sleep.
- Worries about contracting the virus can keep the mind racing at night and elevate the body’s arousal response, triggering insomnia.
- Increased screen time for work, social media, and keeping tabs on the latest health updates exposes the brain to blue light that tells it to stop producing melatonin, the hormone required to fall asleep.
- A depressed mood, lack of exercise and low energy can increase more frequent and longer napping, making it harder to fall asleep when it's time for bed.
Sleep and the immune system
Perhaps the most important reason we need quality sleep during the pandemic is its crucial relationship to a healthy immune system. Whether the goal is to prevent infection or to survive infection, getting a good night's rest becomes even more essential to strengthen our body’s defenses. Keeping our immune system as healthy as possible helps the body resist and fight the infection.
On the other hand, sleep deprivation weakens the body’s defense system and makes people more vulnerable to contracting the virus. During the normal stages of sleep, our bodies release cytokines, which play a key role in healthy immune functioning. Studies show lack of sleep can alter cytokine production. Other studies found that sleep deprivation can make vaccines less effective.
The effect of working remotely on sleep
For more than half of American workers, home and work are now virtually the same. Employment without normal work-life boundaries has changed our sleep habits—and at risk to our health.
A survey of 2,000 people found that 70% of new home workers report their sleeping patterns are disrupted in some way, with one in four claiming that their sleeping pattern has been “very disrupted,” causing restless sleep each night.
According to Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, a sleep researcher at Penn State, the cause of disrupted sleep is two-fold: on one hand, the stress and uncertainty of the COVID pandemic; on the other, the novelty of working from home without structure or boundaries. As he points out, "In the rush to adjust, some people made choices that are leaving them bleary-eyed morning, noon and night. Others are further stressed by the increased responsibilities of having the whole family at home."
What’s more, as the Harvard Business Review has noted, "When people are 'always on' responsiveness becomes ingrained in the way they work, expected by clients and partners and even institutionalized in performance metrics. There is no impetus to explore whether the work actually requires 24/7 responsiveness; to the contrary, people just work harder and longer, without considering how they could work better."
The cost of sleep deprivation to the workplace
Beyond the devastating health effects, sleep disruption has significant economic consequences.
- According to the American Safety Council, U.S. businesses lose more than $135 billion annually as a result of workers with inadequate sleep.
- Researchers from Harvard University found that insomnia results in the loss of an estimated 11.3 days of productivity each year.
- According to the National Sleep Council, fatigued workers cost employers up $3,100 per employee in declining job performance each year.
Research also shows that without enough sleep, employees can become less creative, less cooperative and less inclined to behave ethically. On the other hand, quality sleep has been associated with improved focus, memory, decision-making, response time and accuracy.
How employers can help
While getting good sleep is an employee's personal responsibility, there are measures employers can take to help employees prioritize the importance of sleep.
- Work-Life-Sleep Balance: Add the benefits of adequate sleep to your strategies encouraging work-life balance. Just because people can now work anytime and anywhere doesn’t mean they should. Ensure employees use their vacation and sick time. Offer more flexible scheduling that fits into their home lifestyle. And emphasize benefits such as smoking cessation programs, gym memberships, and other wellness programs that can counteract the negative lifestyle factors that impact sleep quality.
- Employee Education: The more employees know about the importance and benefits of quality sleep (and how to get it), the more likely they’ll be to act on that knowledge. Publish pertinent findings from sleep-related studies in company newsletters and intranet bogs. Invite local experts to run wellness webinars. And teach managers the proper protocol for approaching and supporting employees they suspect are suffering from sleeplessness.
- National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have partnered to launch the "Sleep Works for You" campaign. This initiative encourages employers to educate workers about sleep health and disorders, the costs and safety dangers of fatigue in the workplace, and strategies to improve alertness on the job. It can be a stand-alone training program or part of a comprehensive employee wellness program.
While COVID-19 continues to disrupt our normal lives, quality sleep is more vital than ever to our physical and mental health. That means making sleep a priority. True, it’s not an employer's responsibility to make sure employees are getting enough sleep. But letting them know you understand their need for rest and relaxation will only create a happier and more productive workplace.