The power of sleep – are we putting our jobs before our health?

Following Pam Abbott’s article in last month’s journal regarding well-being in the workplace, this article investigates the importance of sleep on individual performance, the increasing problems associated with lack of sleep and what we can do to improve our sleep patterns.  

The need for sleep is biologically similar to the need to eat and drink and is crucial for individual and societal well being. In fact, sleep deprivation has been listed by Amnesty International as a form of torture. However, statistics show that one in three workers in the UK and in the US suffers from poor sleep. The growing tendency for employees to work late in the evenings and at weekends, to bring work home with them and to respond to emails on handheld devices such as Blackberries in the early hours of the morning are all linked to a lack of quality sleep.  


Just how important is sleep? 

To establish the importance of sleep on our individual lives, we must first look at the impact of lack of sleep outside the workplace. First, lack of sleep has been linked to chronic diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes; in fact, sleeping less than six hours a night increases the risk of developing or dying from heart disease by an astonishing 48 per cent. Secondly, according to US government statistics, drowsy driving has been linked to more than 1,500 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries annually in the United States.  

Within the workplace, there are a number of significant accidents in recent history in which sleep deprivation has played a critical role: namely the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.  

All of the above examples caused incalculable economic, ecological and environmental damage, not to mention the devastating loss of lives. Within our organisations, we are unlikely to have the far reaching influence such as any of the above disasters, however sleep deprivation and poor sleep can have a profound impact on our employees and our organisations. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, there are many risks associated with lack of sleep: 


Risks for workers 

Lack of adequate time to recover from work 

Decline in mental function and physical ability, including emotional fatigue and a decline in the function of the body’s immune system  

Higher rates of depression, occupational injury, and poor perceived health 

Higher prevalence of insomnia among shift workers with low social support 

Increased risk of illness and injury 

Strain on personal relationships, such as marriage and family life 

Increased risk of long-term health effects, such as heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, mood disturbances, and cancer 

Risks for employers 

Reduced productivity 

Increase in errors 

Absenteeism and presenteeism (present at work but not fully functioning because of health problems or personal issues)  

Increased health care and worker compensation costs 

Workforce attrition due to disability, death, or moving to jobs with less demanding schedules 

According to Tony Schwartz, in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “You can’t do your job if you don’t sleep.”  

There is no single behavioural change that more quickly and powerfully influences mood, focus and productivity than a full night’s sleep. 

Performance deteriorates when sleep is regularly restricted to six hours or less per night and does not improve from one or two nights recovery sleep therefore fitting in the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night is critical. However, statistically, only 38.5 per cent of the population do so, 45 per cent have 5-7 hours and 5.4 per cent exist on less than five hours, 10 per cent sleep eight to nine hours and one per cent of the population is lucky enough to sleep more than nine hours per night.  

According to Dr. Tony Massey, medical director of Vielife, a health and productivity firm, “Organisations that have employees that sleep better, perform better in the marketplace. Staff who sleep badly say they don’t feel good, can nod off at their desk, have trouble concentrating and are more prone to viruses and infections.”  

Massey suggests that people are doing too much before they go to bed in, what he refers to as, ‘the golden hour before sleep’, a time when people should in fact be unwinding and preparing for sleep. As a result, he believes that people are “paying the price in that their sleep isn’t refreshing and they end up in a vicious cycle of fatigue, poor productivity and then feeling that they have to do the same again the next day to compensate.” Awareness can help you to improve your sleep habits and in turn your safety. The best guarantee of good quality sleep is to work five days a week and sleep seven to eight hours per night.  

Here are three tips that Schwartz provides to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep: 

Go to bed earlier — and at a set time. Sounds obvious; right? The problem is there’s no alternative. You’re already waking up at the latest possible time you think is acceptable. If you don’t ritualise a specific bedtime, you’ll end up finding ways to stay up later, just the way you do now. 

Start winding down at least 45 minutes before you turn out the light. You won’t fall asleep if you’re all wound up from answering email, or doing other work. Create a ritual around drinking a cup of herbal tea, or listening to music that helps you relax, or reading a book. 

Write down what’s on your mind — especially unfinished to-do’s and unresolved issues — just before you go to bed. If you leave items in your working memory, they’ll make it harder to fall asleep, and you’ll end up ruminating about them if you should wake up during the night. 

It is difficult to determine how much impact sleep loss has on performance due to differences in sensitivity to sleep deprivation and motivation to stay awake despite sleep loss. However, the evidence is clear that lack of sleep leads to poor performance. With sufficient sleep, people feel better, are more focused at work and are able to manage their emotions better.