Waking Up the Workplace
Recognizing nap rooms are not enough, employers are getting more to the heart of the sleep-deprivation problem to ensure workers catch a few more zzzz's.
By Julie Cook Ramirez
Historically a six-hour-a-night sleeper, Eric Severson, senior vice president of global talent solutions for San Francisco-based Gap Inc., thought it was perfectly normal to doze off during the day. As vice president of human resources for Gap Outlet at the time, Severson occasionally found himself nodding off in meetings, but he brushed it off as part and parcel of a busy corporate lifestyle. That is, until the company decided to add a new component to its leadership-development program: sleep.
Gap was in the process of developing its executive leadership-development curriculum when Executive Vice President of Global Human Resources, Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility Eva Sage-Gavin introduced her team to Dr. James Maas, a former professor of psychology, education and communication at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Sage-Gavin was familiar with Maas' passion for sleep education from her days at Cornell, where she earned a bachelor's degree in industrial and labor relations. By the time Sage-Gavin reached Gap's executive ranks, Maas, an internationally recognized authority on sleep and performance -- and author of the best-selling book, Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program that Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance -- had embarked on what he calls an "evangelistic campaign" to educate corporate America about the "deleterious effects of sleep deprivation."
After reviewing Maas' volume of work, Sage-Gavin and her team invited him to speak at Leading Businesses at Gap, the company's annual executive-development event for vice presidents and above, in 2008. Maas spoke about the science of sleep and its impact on performance. Using visual aids such as functional magnetic-resonance-imaging scans, he demonstrated the shocking difference between brain activity following a night of substandard sleep versus a night of adequate sleep.
"When people have their typical sleep, there's nothing going on in the brain; it's not processing [information]," says Maas. "When you show the wide-awake, energetic, rested brain, it looks like a Christmas tree, with every area lit up that's functioning. It's so dramatic that jaws just drop."
Maas not only made the case for getting better sleep, he gave Gap leaders advice on how to change their daily habits to be more amenable to sleep. He focused on simple changes such as avoiding late-day caffeine or alcohol, getting adequate daily exercise, reducing stress levels and creating a sleep-inducing bedroom environment. Severson quickly became a convert. To this day, he personally attests to the effectiveness of Maas' approach.
"Once I started getting seven hours of sleep, I found I was significantly more engaged and alert during my work day, much more patient and in a much better mood," says Severson, who no longer dozes off at meetings. "Getting adequate sleep makes you more emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually resilient. It links to everything else."
In Severson's case, it linked to his physical health in a significant way. He had been told he was developing diabetes, but after he changed his sleep habits, all signs of the disease disappeared completely. That result comes as no surprise to Maas, who cites links between sleep deprivation and heart disease, strokes, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety and cancer.
The problem of sleep deprivation is massive. According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of the civilian workforce -- nearly 41 million American workers -- don't get enough sleep. Forty-three percent of Americans age 13 to 64 say they rarely or never get a good night's sleep on weeknights, according to the 2011 Sleep in America poll by the National Sleep Foundation in Arlington, Va. Perhaps even more shocking is the cost in terms of lost productivity. According to the 2011 Harvard Medical School America Insomnia study sleep deprivation costs U.S. companies more than $63 billion each year, primarily due to the phenomenon of presenteeism, whereby employees are physically present, but performing at sub-par levels. Broken down by individual, that equates to a loss of $2,280 per poor-sleeping worker each year.
Despite all the evidence of the harmful effects and high cost of too little sleep, U.S. employers have been slow to respond, according to Nancy Rothstein, a Chicago-based sleep-wellness consultant who calls herself the Sleep Ambassador.
"The research in many ways is ahead of the response," says Rothstein. "Sleep impacts everything from productivity, performance, energy, judgment, decision-making, concentration, alertness, reaction time, relationships and teamwork, but corporations aren't doing a lot for their employees in terms of sleep because it isn't on the radar screen."
Employers are quick to offer wellness programs focused on fitness, weight loss, nutrition, stress management and smoking cessation, but all too often fail to recognize the need for a sleep component, says Dr. Gregg Jacobs, an insomnia specialist at the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass., and a former assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., where he spent nearly 25 years treating and researching insomnia.
"Sleep problems are one of the most significant issues today in terms of cost to employers because of how that problem affects the individual directly each day, yet they've neglected it," says Jacobs. "I don't see many employers at all who offer wellness programs for sleep."
In large part, that's because companies don't want word to get out that their workers are struggling with sleep problems, says Maas.
"There is such a taboo about sleepy workers that most companies are hesitant to admit it publicly because stockholders and consumers will think they have walking zombies," says Maas. "The truth is everybody has walking zombies and we shouldn't hide it."
In some industries, sleepy workers are simply not an option. In healthcare, for example, just one sleep-deprived employee can literally spell the difference between life and death for a patient. All too aware of the dangers of presenteeism, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., incorporated a cognitive-behavioral-therapy approach to sleep into its Live Well/Work Well employee-wellness program in the fall of 2009. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and thoughts.
In an industry where 12-hour shifts are the norm, "that doesn't necessarily correlate with great results for patients," says Alan Weston, Dartmouth-Hitchcock's chief human resource officer. That led the medical center to provide personalized sleep coaching to those employees who show up at Live Well/Work Well either as the result of a manager referral, a doctor referral or a self-referral. Employees are also identified through Dartmouth-Hitchcock's annual health and wellness assessment.
Participants keep sleep logs and work with their coaches to identify gaps in their sleep behaviors. While a number of employees -- and their dependents -- have taken advantage of the program, Robert McLellan, section chief of occupational and environmental medicine for the center, and medical director of Live Well/Work Well, admits there's a long way to go in convincing employees to take advantage of the offering.
"The general ethos in healthcare is that it's a badge of honor not to get a lot of sleep," says McLellan, who is also a professor of medicine at The Dartmouth Institute and The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. "It's unfortunate how ... working hard has meant if you are really dedicated, you don't get as much sleep as you should."
While Dartmouth-Hitchcock's program is still in its infancy, New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson has racked up some impressive results with its Overcoming Insomnia digital health-coaching program, developed by Wellness & Prevention Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company in Fort Washington, Pa. Participants keep a sleep diary and receive personalized recommendations about their sleep habits and environment. The six-week program focuses on getting people to change their behaviors and their attitudes toward sleep in order to let go of any sleep-related anxieties that may be perpetuating the problem.
The results are impressive. Participants report an average of 41 minutes of increased nightly sleep time and a 29 percent decrease in their daily fatigue level. Most notably, Johnson & Johnson has averaged a "productivity savings" of $5,678 per individual, based on the Work Productivity Activity Impairment questionnaire.
"We want to play an active role in driving this high-performance workplace and we know through research and data that the health of the employee base ties directly to business outcomes," says Calvin Schmidt, worldwide vice president of human resources for the Johnson & Johnson group of consumer companies and Johnson & Johnson enterprise information technology across all business segments.
While some employers have adopted a CBT approach to helping workers adopt better sleep habits, others have focused their efforts on allowing employees to catch some zzzz's on the job. Originally considered part of the fun, quirky culture that permeated many of the dot-com start-ups of the 1990s, nap rooms have become more commonplace in recent years, popping up at Nike, Google, Procter & Gamble, Rodale and The New York Times Co.
Perhaps most famously, the New York-based Huffington Post converted two offices into nap rooms after Founder and President Arianna Huffington became a "sleep evangelist" following a catastrophic fall she blamed on lack of sleep.
"Smart corporations are putting in napping pods and rest areas -- so, instead of offering Coke breaks, which will just destroy your sleep that night, they are saying, 'Go ahead and take 15, close your eyes, and you are going to be a less moody, more efficient worker for the rest of the day,' " says Maas, who claims to have coined the term "power nap."
Henderson, Nev.-based online retailer Zappos Inc. is so proud of its nap room, it built the space with one glass wall, giving passing visitors a peek at snoozing employees. Located in the Customer Loyalty Team area, the darkened room features several couches and reclining chairs and "an overall comforting vibe," according to Bhawna Provenzano, the company's benefits manager.
Zappos' practice of workplace napping dates back to 2004, when employees frequently put in long hours to get the fledgling company off the ground. One enterprising worker brought in a small couch so employees could indulge in power naps while on break. A few years ago, management installed EnergyPods, special ergonomically designed napping chairs by Edgewood, N.Y.-based MetroNaps, but employees preferred the simple comfort of the couches, so the EnergyPods were discarded. According to Provenzano, those who take naps tend to be more alert and creative and make better decisions and fewer mistakes.
Nestled in a quiet corner at the Burlington, Vt., headquarters of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. is a nap room outfitted with a futon, soft lighting and an alarm clock. Employees are allowed to use the space to take a nap, read a book or simply regroup their thoughts. While there are no specific rules guiding how often or how long an employee may use the room, there's never been a need to police it, says Liz Stewart, a spokesperson for the company.
"Certainly, if an employee was taking a three-hour nap each day, [his or her] manager might have to initiate a conversation to address that, but the trust that is placed in employees makes them more willing to use it at their leisure and not abuse the power that's been given to them to do that," says Stewart.
Approximately 6 percent of U.S.-based companies have formal employee nap rooms, according to a 2011 poll of 600 American employers by the National Sleep Foundation. Apparently, a designated nap room doesn't make or break napping, however, as 34 percent of respondents said they allow employees to take occasional naps at work.
While the general consensus among sleep experts is that nap rooms can serve as helpful complements to sleep-wellness programs, the overarching feeling is that a nap room by itself is akin to placing a Band-Aid over a gaping wound.
"Taking a nap is like using caffeine," says Jacobs. "It will help reduce the impairment from not sleeping well at night, but it won't resolve it."
Rothstein agrees naps can be helpful on occasions when an employee has not been able to get a full night's sleep, but should never be considered a replacement for nighttime sleep. Rather, nap rooms must be just one component of a more comprehensive approach to sleep wellness.
While Minneapolis-based Ceridian offers a Serenity Room in each of its locations -- where workers can choose to nap or simply take a time-out -- that's just one component of the company's approach to helping employees and clients' employees combat sleep deprivation. The company's CBT-based model focuses on short-term counseling, along with a full array of articles, tip sheets and self-help recordings available for download on Ceridian's LifeWorks website. While sleep is often the complaint that brings employees to the LifeWorks site, it is often just a symptom of a larger problem, according to Sharon O'Brien, vice president of EAP/WorkLife Operations for Ceridian LifeWorks.
"There is a significant portion of the population that has a bona fide sleep disorder and then there's the other part that is not sleeping because of depression, anxiety, work/life balance issues, caring for a sick parent or something else," says O'Brien. "We help them get to what it is and provide the tools to deal with those issues."
Regardless of the approach, the majority of employers that have already implemented sleep-wellness programs report overwhelmingly positive employee response. In the six years since Gap first incorporated sleep into its wellness initiatives, Maas' session on sleep hygiene has consistently been the highest-rated program at its annual Leading Businesses at Gap event. Given the depth of the problem, Maas is confident other employers will take a page from Gap's playbook and adopt a similar approach to sleep wellness.
"Everywhere we give these presentations, there's an immediate difference in mood, spirit and productivity," says Maas. "Slowly but surely, the problem of sleep deprivation is being pulled out of the closet."