Mental & Behavioral Health

Sleep: An Important Concern for Health and Productivity at Work

The effects of sleep on health and productivity are often underestimated, yet sleep deprivation remains a substantial risk factor for decreased workplace productivity, work errors, as well as occupational injuries which cost employers billions of dollars every year.

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), more than 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep-related disorder, and fatigue resulting from sleep deprivation cost US employers about $136 billion in - $1,200 to $3,100 per employee - health-related productivity loss every year.

"Sleepless nights hurt everyone," said Deborah A.P Hersman President and CEO of NSC. "Many of us have been conditioned to just power through our fatigue, but worker health and safety on the job are compromised when they don't get the sleep they need. Doing nothing to address fatigue costs, employers, a lot more than they think."

According to a recent CDC report, workers getting the highest rates of sleep loss are communications equipment operators (58.2%), other transportation workers (54.0%), and rail transport workers (52.7%). Additionally, the NSC notes that workers on night shift and those whose jobs involved driving at night were at most risk of chronic sleep deprivation. The NSC found that 59% of night shift workers reported sleep loss compared to 45% for day workers.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Employee Health and Productivity

The impact of sleep on wellness and productivity cannot be overemphasized, and recent estimates have revealed that one-third of adults report not having enough sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, in a joint consensus statement, note that adults require at least 7 hours of sleep every day to optimize health. The report further indicates that sleep duration of fewer than 7 hours daily is associated with a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, depression, and cardiovascular disease. However, the CDC reports that 35 percent of US drivers sleep less than this recommended hours daily.

Accidents and injuries are also common complications of sleep loss. In February, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, in a research brief, reported that drowsy driving was involved in 9.5 percent of motor vehicle accidents, with an average of 328,000 motor vehicle crashes caused by drowsy driving every year in the United States, 6,400 of which are fatal. In addition, drowsy driving accounted for 10.8 percent of motor vehicle accidents which resulted in property damage.

Inevitably, with more hours and days of sleep loss employees suffer as a result of work or other stressors, productivity begins to wane and employers may lose a lot of money if they ignore this critical factor. There are many ways in which chronic sleep loss impairs workplace efficiency and some of them include.

Decline in Cognitive Performance

A recent study shows that sleep loss causes a significant decrease in some cognitive functions including creativity, divergent thinking, decision making, short-term and working memory, and execution of tasks, even if the employee regains alertness with the use of stimulant measures. Chronic sleep deprivation frequently yields decreased attentiveness and vigilance with slower response times, which could all limit a worker’s ability to make proactive decisions. These result in a lot of work errors which may include errors of commission and omission which can affect the sustainability and profitability of a company in the long run.

One major cognitive issue associated with sleep deprivation is the individual’s poor insight into cognitive performance deficits. Sleep-deprived workers tend not to know how much the chronic sleep loss affects them and their performance at work. This may promote a further decline in performance as the employer experiences more hours of sleep-deprivation.

The study revealed that after 10 hours of wakefulness, each additional hour was equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.004%, indicating that an individual who has gone an extended period without sleeping would develop the same impaired hand-eye coordination as an individual who is intoxicated with alcohol to the legal limit.

Poor Communication

Chronic sleep loss leaves employees exhausted and may result in poor concentration and a significant reduction in attention span. Sleep-deprived individuals tend to have difficulty maintaining focus on relevant details and keeping track of records and events. These impair the workflow and communication between workers and units.

Additionally, in one study, researchers found that individuals who suffer sleep deprivation experience a drop in the intensity and tone of their voices, take unnecessary pauses during a conversation, mumble details poorly and inaudibly, mispronounce, and repeat themselves in a sentence sequence.

Tendency to Promote Risk-Taking Behavior

Researchers found that sleep loss reduces the inhibitory capacity of certain regions of the brain, consequently increasing the willingness to engage in and the pleasure derived from risk-taking behavior. This also leads to a diminished regard for the consequences of such behavior. What this translates to in the workplace is the tendency for sleep-deprived workers to make riskier decisions which may have potentially damaging effects on the company.

Strategies to Curb Sleep Deprivation among Employees

Employers across all industries are in a strategic position to help workers get more sleep by employing evidence-based strategies and workplace wellness programs. These programs should be centered on sleep hygiene and ensure that employees achieve the recommended sleep quality and quantity each day without compromising workflow.

Education and Sleep Evaluation

The first step in promoting better sleep patterns among workers is incorporating sleep hygiene initiatives into workplace wellness programs. Sleep has often been missing in wellness programs as they mainly focused on food and nutrition, exercise, and smoke cessation.

A crucial part of sleep programs is educating the employees about sleep hygiene. Information about sleep may be provided in official newsletters or posted in common notice sections for all workers to see. Such information should also include recommendations from relevant health agencies on how much sleep is adequate for optimal health, symptoms of sleep disorders, and measures that can be adopted to ensure better sleep.

In addition, managers and workers should be adequately trained in recognizing the features of fatigue and knowledge of the strategies to avoid fatigue-induced occupational accidents. Sleep evaluation is a crucial part of sleep hygiene programs and involves the use of certain tools for employees to evaluate their sleep. This will guide employers and sleep experts in providing targeted advice and recommendations to each employee based on their results.

Incorporate Napping Rooms and Scheduled Breaks

Brief naps and scheduled breaks promote employee health and reduce the risk of workplace errors and accidents. Employees who take scheduled breaks often report feeling less fatigued and more alert during their shift. Actively incorporating a sleep culture in the workplace leads to an overall increased workforce performance.

Sleeping on the job was previously frowned at by employers, but with the growing body of evidence tying poor sleep to poor health and productivity outcomes, more employers are providing sleep-promoting initiatives, one of which is the nap rooms or sleep pods made available to workers for a mid-shift nap.

Some of the companies incorporating sleep pods into their facilities include Huffington’s Post in its New York HQ, Nike at their headquarters in Oregon, and NASA which provides the “NASA nap” room for astronauts during their shifts. These companies have reported enhanced efficiency with the use of these pods as sleep became a priority for them.

Employers can also leverage technology in establishing these sleep pods to make scheduled breaks more efficient and productive.

“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.” Said Dr. Christopher Winters, President and Owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine (CNSM) in an interview with Corporate Health and Wellness Magazine.

Modify Workplace Design to Promote Alertness

It is essential that while providing sleep hygiene programs, workplace design should also be modified to promote sleep and potentiate these sleep strategies. The CDC recommends changes in at least three aspects of the work environment to promote workplace alertness – Lighting, temperature, and noise.

Adjusting office brightness is crucial to influencing sleep patterns in the workplace. For instance, during night shifts, improving brightness can improve alertness and make a worker less prone to fatigue.  Additionally, high temperatures in the workplace increase stress levels and make employees feel fatigued and drowsy. The CDC recommends maintaining workplace temperature at 68 degrees Fahrenheit to promote wakefulness.

Sleep plays an integral role in rejuvenating the body and promoting the health of an individual. It is therefore not to be ignored as an essential factor influencing employee productivity. Employers are becoming more aware of the effects of sleep loss on employee health and the success of their businesses, therefore there’s a need to incorporate effective strategies to promote rest and sleep at work without any stigma to it.  


Learn more about employee wellness in our Sleep Works Summit in this year’s Healthcare Revolution Conference, holding between October 28th and 30th.

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