As sleep continues to command more and more attention in the news media, businesses are paying closer attention. Some are seeing the talk and trend as a revenue opportunity. They’re jumping on the sleep bandwagon and providing avid consumers with a bevy of devices and solutions promising to solve their sleep problems and improve their sleep quality. Companies are marketing sleep monitors, white noise machines, specialized eye masks and high-tech beds and pillows.
Other businesses are viewing sleep as an opportunity for increased profitability in an entirely different way. Rather than looking for increased revenue, they are coming to realize that by encouraging and nurturing their employees’ sleep quality and quantity, they improve internal productivity. Not only are employees doing more, better with more sleep. The companies are also likely to save themselves money on health care expenses and sick time.
A Finnish study published in the medical journal Sleep goes a long way in explaining how beneficial a well-rested employee can be. It showed that those employees who regularly slept between seven and eight hours a night took far fewer sick days than those who slept fewer or more hours. The study included almost 4,000 men and women between the ages of 30 and 64 and asked them about their sleep habits, including questions about insomnia, waking up too early, using sleep aids, snoring, daytime fatigue, symptoms of apnea, and overall sleepiness. It then pulled their employee records to compare their answers to their recorded absenteeism. The results spanned 7.2 years and found an association between higher incidence of sleep disturbance and time out of work. The factor with the highest correlation was sleep duration, which they found to be an accurate predictor of sickness-related absence.
Among the group studied, women averaged 7.6 hours of sleep per night and men got 7.8 hours. Among those who slept between seven and eight hours of sleep the average amount of sick days taken per year was nine to ten days less than those who slept more than 8 hours or less than 7.
These numbers aren’t a surprise to University of California sleep researcher Sara Mednick. She is the author of Take a Nap! Change your Life, and she is quick to point out that this single study only scratches the surface of what needs to be understood about the impact of sleep on productivity. She notes that everybody has different sleep needs, and also that the study does not provide a clear answer as to whether study participants’ lack of sleep contributed to sickness or whether they couldn’t sleep because they were already sick. “There are a lot of things — caffeine intake, how healthy you are, cardiovascular disease, diabetes — if you have these you might not feel well, but you’re also not sleeping well,” she said.
She points to another study conducted at Northwestern University in 2013. Researchers found that people who exercise on a regular basis have a tendency to sleep much more soundly than those who don’t. Just thirty minutes of exercise each day added approximately 45 minutes of sleep to participants’ sleep quantity, and also improved sleep quality, with participants waking up less frequently. It has long been understood that caffeine, alcohol and medications may contribute to poor sleep quality. What is most important is that the body is getting enough of each kind of sleep in order to make sure that cognitive processing and tissue repair is taking place.
Employers who want to boost productivity are beginning to take advantage of the lift that employees get when they take a ten or twenty-minute nap, both of which have been shown to reduce fatigue. Even more productivity is yielded if workers have a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea before they take that nap, as the caffeine kicks in just as they wake up from the nap. Companies have begun to install nap pods and wellness rooms where employees can get some shut eye, and workers are being encouraged to put down their smart phones once they get home so that they are not cutting into valuable sleeping time worrying about work-related issues or responding to emails.
The statistics yielded by the Finnish study are impressive. The researchers showed that by minimizing sleep disturbances companies would be able to make dramatic improvements in worker performance. Extrapolating from their findings they theorize that if sleep problems were eliminated and all employees slept the optimal period of time, the costs of absence due to sickness could be cut by 28 percent.
In the United States, similar studies have yielded equally impressive numbers. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that 40.6 million American workers are sleep deprived, Harvard scientists deduced that the cost was rounding out to $63.2 billion per year in lost productivity. Those numbers were not based on time out of work — instead they focused on what they referred to as “presenteeism” ; people who are there but who are performing well below their capabilities due to fatigue and sleepiness. Japanese companies have researched the same phenomenon and found that workers who had interrupted or insufficient sleep the night before spent an extra 8.4 minutes wasting time online for every shortfall in hour of sleep. Overall, it is estimated that those who suffer from insomnia end up losing an average of 7.8 days of work performance every year as a result of their reduced productivity.
Though many Americans are taking it upon themselves to try to get a better night’s sleep, investing in consumer sleep monitors an other devices designed to help them improve their sleep habits and wellbeing, there is definitely a lot more that employers can do to encourage and assist their employees to get more and better sleep. Doing so will not only benefit their employees’ health, but will clearly have a profound impact on their own bottom line.