January 11, 2021 5 min read
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As this pandemic has vividly illustrated, health challenges can impose a heavy economic toll. But there is another, less discussed, health crisis undermining quality of life, workplace performance and the vibrancy of the economy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in three American adults fail to get enough sleep on a regular basis — jeopardizing their overall health while making them less productive, more error-prone and at higher risk of injury in the workplace. The annual cost to employers? Research indicates that it’s hundreds of billions of dollars.
After a year that has put our health front-and-center, it is time for workplaces to do more to promote better sleep — and that starts with understanding the full scope of the current problem.
Less sleep equals lower productivity
Health professionals recommend that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but with a third of Americans regularly getting less shut-eye than that, employers find themselves grappling with a host of challenges, from higher absenteeism to lower motivation and productivity.
Employees who sleep less than six hours a night cost employers an estimated six working days per year in lost productivity, while a worker who sleeps six to seven hours per night loses just under four working days per year. All told, insufficient sleep costs the American economy $411 billion in missed workdays and reduced productivity annually, according to a 2016 report by the Rand Corporation. The report estimated that simply getting employees who sleep less than six hours per night to sleep six to seven hours would provide a $226.4 billion stimulus to the economy.
Why does sleep have such a major impact on productivity? Simply put, how well we sleep plays a big role in determining how well we can perform cognitively. Less than six hours of sleep means diminished capacity for creativity, critical thinking, clear and effective communication, memory, and task execution. When we sleep less, we are less alert and attentive, putting us at higher risk of workplace errors that cumulatively result in real damage to a company’s bottom line.
In certain roles, sleep deprivation can prove not merely costly, but downright dangerous. Catastrophic events like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Challenger explosion have been tied to poor sleep on the part of critical decision-makers, for example. Sleep-deprived employees may also engage in more reckless workplace behavior, as insufficient sleep compromises the brain’s inhibitory functions and makes people more likely to disregard or fail to foresee the consequences of their actions.
Strategies for employers
What can employers do to help their employees sleep better? Workplace wellness programs incorporating sleep education and sleep hygiene tips are an excellent place to start. Such initiatives can help managers better recognize the signs of fatigue in their employees and thereby, prevent fatigue-related accidents and errors. Educating employees about sleep deprivation and its consequences can also spur them to seek professional care for potential sleep disorders or other challenges (like anxiety) that may be making it harder for them to get a full night’s sleep.
Where appropriate, employers should consider flexible work schedules. A yearlong study found that when employees were offered flexible arrangements, they slept an hour more per week, which may seem like a small improvement — but as research shows, even a tiny boost in sleep duration and quality can make a positive difference toward employees’ well-being and employers’ bottom lines. By limiting after-hours communications to only truly urgent matters, employers will be doing their part to reduce workers’ late-night screen time, which will improve their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Napping rooms or sleep pods, meanwhile, can go a long way toward promoting a workplace culture of healthy sleep, particularly in offices where employees work long hours. Smaller changes to the work environment can also have a tremendous impact. The CDC recommends brighter lighting, lower temperatures and continuous sound (like varied music) to reduce drowsiness and make even sleep-deprived employees feel more awake and energetic.
A well-rested office
As medical professionals have long known, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for guaranteeing better sleep. Some may benefit from pharmaceutical sleep aids, but the solution is not as simple for sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Therapeutic sleep devices can help treat respiratory-related sleep problems, while cognitive behavioral therapy will work wonders for many individuals who suffer from anxiety and struggle to keep their minds from racing when they lie down at night.
Clinical experts will determine the best course of action for each person, but that does not mean that there’s no role for employers. Workplaces have a vested interest in how well their employees sleep each night and have long been responsible for looking after their employees’ health and well-being — from the health coverage they provide, to the safety protocols they put in place. The more we learn about sleep, the clearer it becomes that it is affected by far more than how many cups of coffee we need in the morning. The more employers do their part to promote their employees’ sleep health, the better they, we and the overall economy, all perform.