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Sleep Working

With more Americans working on inadequate sleep, HR is being challenged to find ways to help them get the rest they need.

Thursday, February 1, 2007
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American workers are tired. In fact, according to recent research, sleep deprivation is a growing problem in all kinds of organizations, affecting employee health and productivity in a variety of ways.

According to the Institute of Medicine, some 50 to 70 million Americans suffer chronically from poor or insufficient sleep. Still others face more sporadic sleep problems. Studies by the National Sleep Foundation have found that more than half of all Americans experience significant difficulties related to sleep and wakefulness.

At their most extreme, sleep disorders contribute to a range of serious medical conditions including depression, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart attack and stroke. And even if not a chronic condition, sleep deprivation can lead to industrial accidents, poor decision-making and other problems for both workers and employers.

"Lack of sleep or sleep deprivation is a huge problem nationwide," says clinical psychologist Dr. Michael J. Breus, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor's 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health. He points to recent studies finding that the average person gets less than six hours of sleep per night, even though most people need closer to seven or eight hours.

"What does this mean for employers?" he says. "The current research would suggest that losing 1.2 hours of sleep a night equates to a decrease in overall performance by 32 percent."

While the tendency toward less sleep may come as no surprise to most people, its implications in the workplace often seem to be overlooked.

"Even though it is becoming a recognized problem in our society, I am not sure employers are waking up to the issue -- no pun intended," says Miguel Quinones, a professor in the Edwin L. Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. "Yet there is also mounting evidence showing that sleep deprivation reduces productivity and job satisfaction."

According to Quinones, sleep deprivation has long been a recognized problem among workers for whom safety is a key concern -- such as truckers, pilots, plant operators and, more recently, employees within the medical community. But in service and other industries where safety may not be a paramount issue, more attention is warranted.

Part of the problem may be that employers expect too much of workers, say experts.

"Americans are working longer hours on average than they were 10 years ago and taking less vacation," says Margaret Morford, president of The HR Edge, a consulting firm in Brentwood, Tenn. "They are hooked to the office, even when they are not there, via cell phones, pagers, computers and PDAs."

She adds that employers often talk out of both sides of their mouths on this issue.

"On one hand, they say they want employees to be healthy and have work/life balance and, on the other, they reward those who work long hours by promoting them for their dedication," she says. "I know one company that spent thousands of dollars with a consulting firm developing a work/life balance program. They flew all their directors and above into the corporate offices for a huge kick-off meeting to explain the program. The meeting was held on a Saturday because, they said, that was the only time everyone wasn't working."

Certainly, lack of sleep causes performance problems.

"When employees experience a continued lack of sleep, they become incapable of achieving the same level of performance as they did prior to having these problems," says Lori Glass, Seattle-based vice president of human resources for ePartners, a consulting firm with offices in the United States and England. "You will notice people whom you have known to make good business decisions become less capable of making quick, sound decisions."

Unfortunately, she adds, these same sleep-deprived workers do not realize the enormous impact that lack of sleep is having on them.

"The employee may be tired, have a lack of energy, or be short-tempered when otherwise even-tempered," Glass says. "And none of those symptoms will cause alarm enough to ask for help."

Along with inefficiency, lack of sleep poses greater risks for accidents or other serious problems.

"Sleep deprivation for any cause costs employers big time through loss of work time, increased medical costs, loss of job efficiency and increased job-related injuries," says Dr. Robert Fayle, a neurologist and medical director of the sleep center at Park Plaza Hospital and Medical Center in Houston. "The great industrial accidents of our age were all shift- or sleep-related."

Employers have a number of options when it comes to addressing sleep-related problems. Perhaps the best starting point is to spread the word.

"Employers need to start with educating management and supervisor-level employees about how common sleep deprivation is right now," says Glass. "Managers need to know the signs and symptoms of sleep problems, and how to address this issue with their employees so they can assist employees in how and when to take action."

Breus says HR executives can take the lead in this process.

"Having someone from HR come in and explain why sleep is important -- not only for performance, but for both mental and physical health as well -- usually starts the ball rolling," he says. They might also bring in health experts to present objective information on topics ranging from sleep apnea to promoting healthy sleep patterns.

The Right Environment

Beyond education, specific measures designed to promote alertness can also pay off.

"The job environment is important," Breus says. "Bright lights and scheduled breaks will help. And appropriate stimulants such as coffee for night workers can be useful."

Other possible steps vary with the work setting and the culture that supports it. Along with providing free caffeinated drinks and healthy snacks, some employers have begun encouraging napping during breaks or lunchtime. Some have even set up quiet spaces where workers can lie down.

"Promoting napping at the workplace is a scientifically demonstrated sleepiness countermeasure," says Sara C. Mednick, a researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. "Studies that my lab has conducted, as well as other sleep labs, show that a nap not only boosts alertness, but also improves memory skills that would otherwise decay across the work day."

Will napping at work become more common in the future? Mednick predicts more organizations will begin to see the value of allowing employees to catch up on needed rest.

"I see the socialization of napping as going the way of telecommuting," she says. "In the early '90s, people began to realize that they could get much more done at work by creating home offices and avoiding travel times and workplace distractions.

At first, this was a very hard concept for CEOs to swallow. But research into the benefits of telecommuting, such as demonstrating increased productivity, less overhead, less sick days and, of course, the benefits to the bottom line, finally convinced many companies to begin allowing people to work from home.

"Normalizing napping in the workplace will require the same rational, scientifically-supported, economic-based arguments before anyone will be comfortable seeing people sleeping at work," Mednick says. "Research into the benefits of napping and books like Take a Nap! [by Mednick] are the beginning of this movement."

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Despite the recommendations of experts such as Mednick, however, the culture in many organizations may not support napping, "These recommendations are not likely to be widely implemented," Quinones says. "Nobody wants to look like a slacker, and taking a nap would feed right into that perception."

Implementing policies and practices that reduce risks related to sleep deprivation can also prove helpful. Of course, no policy should be seen as a panacea, since many factors in employees' personal lives can affect the quantity and quality of their sleep. An employee who moonlights or takes in too much late-night television may be tired and inefficient for reasons that are totally unrelated to his or her primary workplace responsibilities.

The same goes for those with chronic sleep problems. Medical experts note that sleep apnea is a leading contributor to sleep deprivation, with many people failing to get proper diagnosis or treatment. On the job, the result is chronic tiredness for workers who have not slept well the previous night and a negative effect on productivity and safe behavior.

Individual differences aside, employers may do well to consider policies that prevent employees from working excessively long hours. This might include mandating vacations and limiting overtime, among other measures.

"Employers should have specific policies that limit the number of hours an employee can work, particularly in safety-sensitive jobs," Morford says. "No one working with machinery or equipment should be allowed to work more than 12 hours at a stretch, and no employee should be allowed to work a double shift." Morford adds that employers also need more specific policies regarding outside jobs.

"Some employers may have a very general policy about allowing second jobs as long as it doesn't interfere with the employee's primary job duties," she says. "These policies should be tightened up to limit the number of hours employees can work in a day's time if they are going to take a second job. The policy should be drafted in such a way that it emphasizes the employer's concern for the employee's health and safety."

Staying on top of sleep-related issues may mean not just limiting an excess in hours worked, but understanding the degree to which longer hours are causing problems, if any.

"Employers and managers need to be aware of the amount of time and stress additional hours put on an individual," Glass says. "If managers are having open communication with their employees, they will know when the additional hours have caused stress that is affecting their performance."

Other policies might promote flexibility so that individual needs regarding rest can be accommodated.

"Helping employees work more efficiently is a better policy than mandating hours," Glass says. "HR needs to be flexible with employee work hours when possible, to recognize that different employees have different circadian rhythms. They may require flexibility in work hours and work patterns to best utilize their high-performance times of the day."

Of course any company's policies must meet its overall business needs, but any employer can take steps to reduce problems related to lack of sleep.

"At a minimum, we recommend that employers provide a very comfortable area for employees to rest when they are on break or at lunch," says Carol Smith, HR manager for PRC, a Plantation, Fla., firm specializing in customer-relationship management. Her tips for helping employees manage or avoid problems related to lack of sleep include:

* Promoting National Sleep Awareness Week -- this year, from March 5 through 11 -- within the workplace,

* Ensuring leadership awareness of the importance of sleep to wellness, health and safety,

* Ensuring leadership awareness of symptoms of sleep disorders and

* Mandating health and wellness programs, and awareness within the workplace.

"Providing a comfortable work environment, along with the appropriate tools to do the job," she says, "can also help create a more productive environment for someone who is sleep-deprived."

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