By Margye Solomon

Sleep. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping. It is part of our daily routine. Not only getting enough sleep but getting plenty of quality sleep is as essential to our survival as food and water. Without sleep none of us can form or maintain the pathways in our brains that allow learning and the creation of new memories. Concentration and response time suffer as well. How can we be our best selves if we are essentially sleep-walking through each day?

“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together”. Thomas Dekker

What should we know about sleep? Are we getting enough? If not, how is lack of sufficient time and quality of sleep affecting our health and wellness?

What should we know about sleep?  We should at the very least, know the basic health consequences of sleep deprivation. According to HealthPeople.gov, the odds of being someone who sleeps less than 6 hours a night have increased significantly over the past 30 years. And yet, the NIH Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke tells us that everyone needs sleep but that its biological purpose remains a mystery. Wait, what?

What we do know is that sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. And, an NIH study in 2019 links irregular sleep patterns to metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and, hypertension.

The really frightening bit of information is this: For every hour of variability in time to bed and time asleep, a person may have up to a 27 percent greater chance of experiencing a metabolic abnormality.

Are we getting enough sleep? The short answer is no. Changes in the way we work, technology, environmental stressors and changes in our physical environment have contributed to the increase of poor sleep habits over the years. We all recognize how digital connectivity has blurred the lines between work and home.

In 2008 (12 years ago), the CDC, Epidemiology Program Office published a study titled “Perceived insufficient rest or sleep among adults” which showed – that poor sleep health was a common problem, with only 25 percent of U.S. adults reporting sufficient sleep or rest at least 15 out of every 30 days. Without a recent study for comparison we can only guess how much our sleep health has deteriorated since then.

Sleep and Workplace Wellness. All of the studies mentioned in this article, show an increased public health burden caused by chronic sleep loss and sleep disorders. Fatigue and sleepiness can reduce productivity and increase the chance for medical errors and vehicle or industrial accidents. Sleep or the lack thereof is costing employers over 1.2 million working days and $411 billion annually. According to the National Safety Council:

  • Fatigued work productivity costs employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually
  • A typical employer with 1,000 employees can expect to experience more than $1 million lost east year to fatigue ($272,000 due to absenteeism and $776,000 due to presenteeism)
  • Chronic sleep deprivation causes depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease – general unwellness in a worker population that is 43% sleep-deprived

There is a long list of individual causes for sleeplessness and an equally comprehensive list of tips for sound sleep included in every article published on the topic. We’ll forgo those lists and concentrate on the organizational causes of workplace fatigue.

Do you fall into any of these categories?

  • Demanding jobs – 81% studied in a 2017 National Employee Survey reported jobs with a high risk of fatigue. Jobs that require sustained attention, are physically or cognitively demanding can increase risk
  • Long weeks – 22% work long weeks. Working 50 or more hours a week is tiring. (technology allows us to keep working even when not at ‘work’)
  • Long commutes – 31% have long commutes. Long commutes decrease the time available to recover.

What can my company do to help me? What can I do to get more sleep?

We’ve addressed the economic and health impact of poor sleep habits but it seems to me, the first step to solving a problem, is understanding it. The Wellness Council of America’s article, The Effects of Poor Sleep in the Workplace, puts a face on sleep disorder and tells us how it starts. It’s called Insomnia and whether it is short term or chronic we need to address it at home and at work.

The 3 starting points of Insomnia:

  1. Medical or Health Issues – chronic pain, sleep apnea, narcolepsy
  2. Stressful Situations – financial difficulties, marital issues, employment stressors
  3. Lack of a Good Sleep Routine – going to sleep & waking at inconsistent times, shiftwork, frequent travelers

If you’ve ever suffered from short term insomnia, you know what a curse it can be. Some of the ways we try to relieve our insomnia but can actually cause or perpetuate it are: staying in bed when you can’t sleep; going to bed earlier or trying to catch up on sleep; reading or watching TV in bed; napping; or, drinking alcohol close to bedtime.

I’m guilty of trying all of those fixes and while I don’t suffer from chronic insomnia, I most certainly have fallen victim to it short term. I like to nap on the weekends but know that when I do, I don’t sleep well that night. Drinking late never bodes well for a good night’s sleep. Since I’ve been tracking my sleep patterns with my wearable, I’ve become more aware of how well I’m sleeping. We all agree that knowledge is power however the cure for chronic insomnia is a bit more difficult than following a list of tips, taking medication or tracking our patterns.

Reversal requires two things:

  • The brain needs to be trained to revert to its pre-insomnia beliefs and thoughts
  • The body clock needs to be reset to pre-insomnia state

Treatment should be both cognitive and behavioral. Easier said than done.

For employers to bring health sleep to the workplace they must design a wholistic initiative and include it in their overall wellness program. Including regular sleep education, sleep disorder screenings and launching regular sleep challenges in an existing program are a few ways to engage employees to focus on their sleep health.

Making behavioral changes is difficult at best and the emotional connection to sleep makes it as difficult as smoking cessation or weight loss to overcome. Based on what we’ve learned here – a sleep initiative must be a major component of any comprehensive employee wellness program.

Envision to Sleep Well.