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The High Cost of Sleeplessness

Insomnia is creating expense and danger for employees and employers alike, and it's up to HR leaders to train their own staffs, as well as all managers, on ways to deal with it. Communicating information on EAPs, providing some quiet areas for power naps and offering suggestions on ways to de-stress and relax at home are some options.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011
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You might be surprised by the number of employees at your organization who are coming to work seriously sleep-deprived.

You might be even more surprised to find out how costly the problem is.

A recent study by researchers at several schools, including Harvard Medical School and the University of Michigan, determined insomnia is costing U.S. businesses $63 billion in lost productivity annually. Broken down, each worker with insomnia costs his or her employer $2,280 to $3,274 per year.

It's hard to say whether the problem is actually going up, because this appears to be the first definitive study on the impact of insomnia -- specifically -- at work. But Dr. Russell D. Robbins, a Norwalk, Conn.-based principal and senior clinical consultant for Mercer, says "anecdotally, yes, cases of insomnia are increasing."

Looking for signs of fatigue and inadequate sleep "could be [as subtle as] the inability to make decisions or to act on things," says Robbins, or it could be as obvious as finding someone fast asleep at their desk, with the phone ringing.

The study, which relied on questionnaires sent to more than 10,000 employed adults -- all members of a large, nationwide health plan -- reveals nearly one-fourth (23 percent) of workers suffer from this ailment.

"People have a lot of things to keep them awake at night," says Helen Darling, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health, a Washington-based nonprofit that represents large employers on national health-policy issues.

Not only are the majority of employees worried about their finances now more than ever, she says, but "today, everybody is so leanly staffed; non-revenue functions are about as lean as they can be. I don't think we're talking enough about the impact of insomnia on both employees' and employers' well-being."

So often, says Darling, the National Transportation Safety Board finds causes of automobile accidents to be "someone falling asleep or losing control."

In cases where sleepy employees make others unsafe or themselves unsafe -- be they salespeople on calls; drivers of buses, trains or subways; pilots on long overseas flights; surgeons and medical residents; workers dealing with heavy machinery or safety equipment; the list goes on -- "companies will be at risk and could pay a very steep price," she says.

"You have a wreck where a van crashes and 22 die because the driver fell asleep," she says, "and the company and the people involved will probably go bankrupt because of the fines and court decisions."

Whatever the underlying cause -- whether they're lying awake at night worrying about their finances, or working three jobs just to pay the mortgage, "or pacing the house due to a troubled child or a pending divorce or a horrible spouse," Darling says -- HR leaders need to train their own staff, as well as all managers, to be on the lookout for signs of insomnia and be able "to communicate the availability of the help that is offered -- namely employee-assistance programs."

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Darling suggests managers and supervisors be encouraged to share their own stories when recommending a visit to the EAP.

"They should really say something like, 'You look like you're really tired today; we have an EAP program; I had to call them recently; they helped me so much,' " Darling suggests.

Communicating the importance of getting a full night's sleep and offering suggestions for de-stressing and relaxing while at home can also go a long way to ensure your workforce is as alert as possible, says Robbins.

"It's always a tricky area," he says, "determining what is or isn't appropriate to talk about, but considering the nature of some industries, with lives at risk, it becomes imperative."

Information could be relayed via mass emails, lunch-and-learns or even one-on-one conversations between workers and their managers or HR.

Robbins also says HR professionals should assess their facilities to determine where power naps may be called for and where break rooms or quiet rooms are located, in which people can close the door and shut their eyes.

"Overall," he says, "we recommend they all be flexible and understanding, and realize everyone has many things going on at home" that could impinge on sleep.

Darling agrees. "I think sleeplessness has a much bigger impact on companies than it's ever been fully appreciated in the business community," she says.

"It used to be laughed at, treated humorously," she adds. "But there's not that feeling that it's something to laugh at among HR leaders anymore. Many already see this as a big problem that needs to be dealt with."

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