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Innovative Sleep Programs – How Sleep Is Revolutionizing The Workplace

Interview with Dr. Christopher Winter, President & Owner, CNSM Consultant

At the WMTC & EHBC last year in Washington, D.C., Corporate Wellness Magazine caught up with Dr. Christopher Winters just before his presentation at the much-anticipated Sleep Summit. An emerging trend is more and more corporate offices initiating programs to encourage their employees to sleep and to sleep well. Here is Dr. Winter’s take on what all the conversation is all about.

CWM: How is sleep revolutionizing the workplace?

DR.WINTERS: I think people are starting to understand just how important it is to pay attention to the sleep of an employee. Everything up to now has been focused on the employee’s life within the workplace. We see this a lot in sports that we deal with, where after the employee or the athlete leaves the workplace or the training facility, that part of their life is not considered.

What is interesting is that you can bring nutrition into the workplace fairly easily, at least in some way, but sleep has always been sort of on its own. I think people are starting to understand just how quality sleep can have a tremendous impact on the worker’s or athlete’s performance, like fewer sick days, and improved mental attitude and well-being in general. So, I think that people are starting to finally understand that the idea of sacrificing sleep, staying up late and getting up early is not a long-term solution.

CWM: Do you think sleep pods actually provide optimum comfort and time for rest? Do you have any familiarity with them?

DR. WINTERS: Yes, I do. I think they’re better than somebody trying to sleep at their desk or on a couch in a disruptive lounge area. So, for example, we’ve actually designed nap rooms for athletic teams. It’s all about elevating the experience, understanding that you may not be able to capture the perfect experience but you can certainly make it better. Sleep pods certainly make it quieter, and cooler and darker. By just creating a uniform environment with a process whereby the individual is going to a specific place at a certain time of the day is so beneficial.

I remember one time when I was with a team and I was looking around for a BBQ. I was hungry and I was in between interviews. I opened up a storage closet, and there was a player on the floor of the storage closet with a towel wrapped up under his head using it as a pillow. If your athletes are going to sleep, is that the best we can do?

So I think a pod provides a great environment and is a good idea. It’s also a great symbol when you bring that pod into your work environment, it translates that sleep is of real and tangible value.

CWM: What do you think employers can do to encourage their employees to get better quality sleep?

DR. WINTERS: To me, it’s all about creating a culture. Talking about it, not preaching, but just talking about the benefits of sleep with your employees. I think you give them opportunities to explore sleep; you don’t penalize individuals for taking a nap or making time for resting. I also think that this is particularly important to communicate to the employee from the top down. That way, there is a sort of a modeling kind of experience. We are starting to see this with a lot of CEOs who sort of “get it” because they take naps. Arianna Huffington has gone on record to say that she makes sure people know when she’s napping!

I feel that we can all do that. So if the boss is taking a nap, the boss is talking about how important it is and then by doing it, the employees have a little bit more comfort level in doing it themselves.

CWM: What is your number one sleep tip? 

DR. WINTERS: Well, there are so many… I think the number one sleep tip is probably consistency, and specifically, consistency of awakening. I think people make a lot of fuss about the consistency of bedtime which is important, but to me, I think that people sort of hang on very hard and fast to rigid bedtimes.

Holding onto the idea that your bedtime is 11:00 pm so that individual sets the plan or course of action that they get into bed at 11:00 pm and then they maybe don’t fall asleep quickly.

Then they’re stressed out, think they have to fall asleep in order to keep their schedule. My advice is that the bedtime should be a time that you’re aiming for but if you’re not sleepy at your bedtime, then it is okay to stay awake and do things. This is important for employees, and for kids. In our household we don’t really have bedtimes; we have times when I want my kids to be in their rooms, quiet and reading or drawing, or doing something, but the wake-up times are pretty set in stone.

We don’t want to create what can be construed as performance anxiety, which is where we find a lot of people encounter difficulties regarding sleep. They’re in bed at 10 pm, and they are not asleep by 11:00 pm and then it is 11:30 pm and they haven’t fallen asleep. That leads the individual now feeling like they are failing. So to me, consistent wake time and even napping, I think, is meant to have some sort of plan. Such as, you set an appointment at 1:00 PM to take a nap until 1:25 pm. If your set nap time rolls around and you don’t feel sleepy, then skip the nap. But if you skip the nap and at 4:00 pm you feel tired, I think it is better not to nap because you missed your chance.

I suggest you try to treat sleep like a meal. We don’t eat all over the place, we try to have consistency with our meal time, and so we can probably do the same thing with our sleep.

There was some research a while back which stated that resting actually does 70 percent of what sleep does for the body. Therefore, the idea is that if you are in bed, not falling asleep, you are not really wasting time.

CWM: What do you think the trends are in the industry?

DR. WINTERS: You know, I think that right now sleep is in the “Wild West” phase, meaning that we’ve capitalized on interest and enthusiasm, but in terms of great scientific backing for all the things that have been put out, there is a lack of discipline. What I mean is that there are a lot of people who market products that are going to help you sleep and certain methods that are supposedly going to help you sleep and books that are going to help you sleep, but the credentials are not always there. Like a yoga teacher for two years writing a book about sleep. I’ll be sure to tell my mentors and sleep experts that they wasted 50 years of their life with all this training.

So, I think we are in a place right now where there is this kind of unrivaled enthusiasm, and people are passionate and want to consume good information about sleep. But I think over the next several years that will sort of get distilled out. Arianna’s [Huffington] book is a thesis on why sleep should matter. So, I think we’re getting to the place where people read it and say, you know what, I believe it – sleep does matter. Now tell me what to do, how can I take my sleep to another level?

CWM: So what do you think is on the horizon?

DR. WINTERS: With the integration of smart thermostats and smart homes, I think we’re going to start to see the development of a truly smart bedroom. Beds that adapt to our sleeping patterns, beds that can monitor our temperature during the night and adjust bed temperature, ambient lighting, and room temperature to provide maximal sleep. We’ll see also see lighting products that can help us wake up and feel our best, even in winter months when the light is different. So, I think that we’re going to start seeing technology subtly creep into the home and optimize the way we sleep. Also, we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm within the primary care field and the medical community. They understand that if they really take the time to evaluate employees for sleep disturbances and fix them early on, we can really stave off a lot of medical conditions.

CWM: What is the best advice you didn’t take?

DR. WINTERS: I think, I always tell people just because you can stay up late and function well the next day doesn’t mean you should do it. I don’t know when, probably sometime in my late thirties, I kind of figured that out. Once I remember when my wife asked me when I was going to paint the basement. I had previously applied masking tape to the baseboards, fully intending to paint, but not getting to it right away. So, I literally stayed up all night and painted the basement and went to work the next day and was fine. But I really kind of had a moment where I thought to myself just because you can do that, I really shouldn’t do that!

So at that point, I really decided to create a situation where at midnight or 11 o’clock, no matter how interesting the work, at that point I would just shut it off and make an effort to get to sleep.

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