The Importance of Sleep

Published April 26, 2017

Americans are not getting enough sleep, and we are all paying the price.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50-70 million US adults suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. This means that one in every three to five working age Americans do not get the recommended 7-8 hours restful sleep per night.

The CDC observes that inadequate sleep is associated with several serious chronic diseases, including obesity, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. A systematic review and meta-analysis showed that people with sleep problems are more likely to die prematurely.

But chronic sleep deprivation is more than a risk factor for chronic disease. Sleepiness is a public health problem as well. A recent study documented that car accidents are more common in people with obstructive sleep apnea. The consulting firm McKinsey reports that workers who remain awake 17-19 hours become as impaired as if they had blood alcohol levels close to the legal driving limit. Inadequate sleep has also been associated with medical errorsindustrial errors, and an overall reduction in perceived quality of life.

Sleepy at Work

The costs of chronic sleep deprivation are only the tip of the iceberg. The loss of productivity due to sleep-deprived employees takes a toll on the overall economy. A study published in 2010 examined the sleep habits and productivity of over four thousand employees of major US corporations. Employees who reported poor sleep or insomnia cost their companies an average of $1,967 per year in the form of lost productivity, poor performance, and accidents.

It is tempting to argue that sleep-deprived employees are simply unhealthy people. Perhaps, if employees ate healthy foods and exercised more, poor sleep habits would not matter as much. A large study of over 18,000 employees showed that people with poor health habits are indeed less productive than those who eat well and exercise, but inadequate sleep alone was an independent risk factor for poor performance at work.

How to Encourage Employees to Sleep Better

Recognizing that a rested employee is a productive employee, the business world is waking up to the importance of initiatives that integrate healthy sleep into corporate wellness programs.

Some businesses have adopted the practice of halting company-wide emails after 7 PM (except in emergencies). The implicit message is that work should stop at some point and the employee should get to sleep. An added benefit of such a policy is that employers reduce their risk of running afoul of the new Fair Labor Standards Act overtime regulations.

The new wave of wellness programs offered by businesses may indirectly help employees sleep better. One of the most common sleep problems, obstructive sleep apnea, can be managed in many cases with weight reduction. Corporate weight loss challenges and incentive programs may therefore prove cost-effective in the long run. Insomnia from work-related stress may be managed by yoga, mindfulness, and other stress-reduction programs at work. The simplest anti-insomnia intervention might be to offer decaf in the break room.

The nap is making a comeback, and it may prove another solution to the sleepy employee problem. From companies as self-consciously laid-back as Ben & Jerry’s, to button-down government institutions such as NASA, nap programs, including dedicated “nap rooms,” have proven remarkably successful at improving productivity and an overall sense of wellness throughout the company.

The Good Sense of Sleep

Good health can be thought of as resting on four foundation stones: healthy diet, exercise, stress-reduction, and sleep. All four are closely related to one another: people who sleep better get better exercise and vice versa; people who get better sleep have reduced stress and vice versa; and so on. The greatest employee health challenge the corporate world should manage is employee sleep. It seems counter-intuitive that taking a break from work to sleep will improve productivity, but this is precisely what the research shows is the case. Today, when globalized commerce demands that we work when we should be sleeping, attention to healthy sleep is more important than ever.