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In Search of Better Sleep

Employers and vendors are becoming increasingly aware of the toll sleep deprivation takes on the workplace, and experts suggest making sleep improvement part of your overall wellness initiatives.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015
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It's inevitable.

Sooner or later, employees who perpetually run on too little rest will see their physical health, mental acuity and work performance start to suffer.   

But, whatever factors are conspiring to keep them awake at night, many workers just aren't getting the sleep they need to be their best selves on the job.

Consider that, in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data from a National Health Interview Survey, and found 30 percent of U.S. civilian workers-about 40.6 million individuals-sleep less than six hours per day. (The National Sleep Foundation suggests the average person should get seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night in order to properly function.)

Why is this a concern?

Harvard Medical School data shows that, for the average worker, insomnia leads to more than 11 days of lost productivity each year, equaling $2,280. Extrapolate that number across the U.S. workforce and the tally comes to $63.2 billion.

Such figures have gotten employers' attention, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health.

Companies are "interested in employee happiness and engagement," says Heinen, "and poor sleep is associated with just the opposite: lower levels of positive emotion, higher levels of negative emotions, a lower sense of purpose and lower levels of life satisfaction" for example.

Employee fatigue is also "a significant safety and risk-management concern" in industries such as oil and gas, manufacturing and all forms of transportation, adds Heinen.

In response to these risks, employers and vendors have begun to provide employees with tools aimed at helping them sleep better and sleep more.

Earlier this year, for instance, Ceridian augmented its LifeWorks wellness offering with a sleep-coaching program designed to provide research-based information and support on healthy sleep practices that can be incorporated into an individual's daily routine. Columbia, S.C.-based SleepMed Inc., meanwhile, has introduced a nationwide health-and-wellness product that screens employees for sleep disorders and provides access to therapies.

United Kingdom-based Big Health's Sleepio at Work program is the latest addition to this market space. Big Health launched the digital sleep improvement program in July, not quite one year after releasing its Sleepio app, which imports sleep data from fitness-tracking devices, gives users a sleep-profile overview and tailors a personalized program of cognitive behavioral-therapy techniques. 

Experts say such products and programs are a step in the right direction, but employers and HR have to first educate their workforces on the value of better sleep.

Psychologist and former University of Michigan professor Don Powell recommends focusing on the instant benefits of improved sleep, as opposed to the long-term consequences of not getting enough rest.

"Create education around how [inadequate sleep] affects employees at work, at home or in other aspects of their lives, and how it affects their ability to make other positive lifestyle changes," says Powell, who is currently president and CEO of the Farmington Hills, Mich.-based American Institute for Preventive Medicine. (The Institute has also entered the sleep-improvement product game, offering HealthyLife SleepWell, which combines a booklet of behavior-modification techniques and a CD with music, sounds and exercises designed to aid sleep.)

To help encourage behavior modifications that lead to more sound sleep and, consequently, more productive workdays, Powell urges "pointing out the correlation between proper sleep and improved mood, as well as the abilities to learn information better, and to cope better with stress and physical challenges."

Indeed, individuals reap "immediate rewards" from improving sleep, adds Heinen.

Employees quickly start to feel better and possess more energy, which should reinforce the positive behaviors that facilitate better rest, she says, adding that "this should lead to more success and greater sustainability than behavior-change initiatives [with] rewards that are perceived as more distant, such as losing weight to be healthier."

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Ultimately, sleep-improvement efforts should be part and parcel of the organization's broader wellness initiatives, says Powell.

"HR needs to roll out programs like this alongside other wellness programs," says Powell. "For example, designate a month as 'Healthy Sleep Month' at the company. Put up posters listing sleep resources that are available to employees. Bring in a vendor to talk about how employees can enroll in sleep and wellness programs."

Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president and leader of Aon Hewitt's national health-transformation team, agrees that addressing sleep issues can and should be part of existing wellness efforts, and begins with employee education.

"We tend to sometimes jump to think that we have to have a pill or a medical treatment in order to get better" in terms of improving employee health, she says.

"But the starting point is making people aware of sleep hygiene and then determining what employees need to do." For example, a given employee may see significant improvement in his or her sleep by not drinking caffeine at night.

"In my mind, it isn't about making [sleep issues] another area for employers to focus on," says Pronk, "as much as it's about just showing employees how what they're doing today can impact their sleep."

For some companies, helping employees adopt habits that are conducive to better sleep may require adopting a new mind-set, and perhaps new policies, she says.

"There are progressive organizations that forbid work from being done after, say, 6 p.m. But some organizations want their people connected on a 24/7 basis," she adds. "This is going to be a challenge for those companies. Employers are going to have to decide if they truly believe in the importance of adequate sleep [as a key contributor to] the creativity and production of the company."

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