The Impact of Sleep Deprivation in the Workplace: A Cross Industry Perspective and Recommendations

With the corona virus pandemic battering all aspects of our personal and professional lives, who can sleep at a time like this? But aside from washing our hands, perhaps one of the easiest and most important tools we have at our disposal is to get a good night’s rest. After all, getting a good night’s sleep boosts our natural immunity. In fact, one groundbreaking study found that “those who slept less than six hours a night were four times more likely to develop a cold than those who got seven hours or more.” Sleep matters. Yet the importance of sleep is widely ignored. And this issue transcends the current pandemic. The role of sleep in employee health, wellness and productivity has been a largely neglected topic in most corporate boardrooms. And despite the many challenges companies are facing now, it has become clear that this is one issue that leaders must address head-on in the near future.

Consider one of the most sensational examples, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, from January 1986. With millions of people eagerly watching the live coverage of the liftoff of 7 astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, the first ordinary U.S. civilian to travel into space, the challenger shockingly exploded moments after launch, killing all crew members and traumatizing a nation. The cause was unknown at the time by the general public. But after a presidential commission investigation, it had been found that critical judgment and communication errors were committed by key personnel which directly contributed to the outcome. As the commission noted, “key personnel had obtained less than two hours sleep the night before…and working excessive hours, while admirable, jeopardized job performance.” The Space Shuttle challenge was not an isolated incident. 3 Mile Island. Chernobyl. The Exxon Valdez. The list of examples is both long and troubling. But nearly thirty-five years later, sleep deprivation remains a rite of passage in many organizational cultures and persists as a silent health and wellness problem.

How Big of a Problem is Sleep Deprivation?

In February 2020, a unique amalgam of sleep scientists, sleep technologists and industry health and wellness executives (Transportation, Manufacturing, Automotive, Hospitality, Life Sciences, Aerospace, Consulting), gathered to explore the significance of sleep deprivation on organizational wellness and productivity. What the group near-unanimously agreed upon is that sleep is a low, if non-existent, priority for most organizations. And the impact is not well understood by most leading executives. And in fact, the impact extends far beyond the individual and even the organizational: Sleep deprivation costs the US Economy over $400 Billion every year, according to a Rand Institute study. The group concluded that a coordinated, cross industry effort is required to create a sustainable change.

The size of the problem is significant not just in economic terms, but also human terms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. And when we look over extended periods of time, it appears that healthy working adults are increasingly sleeping less. The group pointed to a low-level of general awareness and understanding of the effects of sleep deprivation in both the line worker and executive ranks. According to renowned sleep researcher, Dr. Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D., “2 hours of sleep loss is sufficient enough to produce decrements in performance. And after several nights of 5 hours of sleep, most adults are pathologically sleepy, and don’t realize it.” Sleepiness can have dramatic effects on your memory, cognition and judgment which can lessen productivity, increase accidents and errors. If you are sleeping only 4 hours a night, the effects are even more pronounced; it’s been described as equivalent to drinking 5–6 beers, which in most U.S. states would place you at the legally intoxicated level. And many people believe that they’ll just make it up by sleeping in on the weekend. But unfortunately, you can’t easily make up a sleep deficit. Researchers have found that recovery from one night of sleep deprivation generally takes at least 4 nights of extended sleep to restore baseline alertness. Thus, once sleep is lost, it’s difficult to regain. And what makes sleep deprivation particularly vexing, is that unlike many other employee wellness issues, sleep deprivation has only worsened over the years and its very easy for organizations to dismiss it as ‘not my problem.’

Employee Impact

The impact of sleep deprivation is significant. Three areas that rise to the top in terms of relevance to the cross-industry group were:

Employee Focus and Productivity: Sleep-deprived professionals struggle with maintaining focus on tasks, maintaining engagement and attending to activities judged to be non-essential. When we are highly distractible, we find ourselves avoiding the heavy cognitive load activities and pursuing the low cognitive load work like responding to emails all day.

Workplace Safety and Errors: Heavy industry, airlines and companies with a large complement of shift workers have long been aware of the risks associated with sleep deprived workers. There is a strong relationship to employee alertness and workplace accidents, errors and injuries. But the risks go far beyond industrial workers and apply to the ‘white collar’, or salaried, employees as well.

Communication: When workers are tired, they struggle to communicate. Research studies have observed that sleep deprived individuals communicate drastically differently versus their rested selves, including: a reduction in the tone and intensity of their voices, superfluous pausing, poor articulation and mumbling and losing their place in a sentence sequence. It can lead to poor strategic direction and poor judgment when communicating complex ideas and direction.

Leadership: Sleep deprivation can greatly influence a leader’s personality and the organizations around them. There is a long and unfortunate trail of our most senior leaders (including many Presidents) that advertise getting far less than the recommended number of hours of sleep. President Clinton notoriously slept only a few hours and as one White House official observed, “in the first few weeks of office, he was out of sorts, easily distracted, and impatient.” This has an enormous spillover effect and shapes the behaviors and culture of an entire organization.

The Organizational Barriers

So, what are most companies doing about it? Not enough. To be sure, we have come a long way in terms of awareness as a society. But a very small percentage of companies meaningfully address sleep and alertness. There have been a few leaders that are outspoken such as Ariana Huffington and Jeff Bezos. But they feel more like the exception rather than the rule. What this group found is there are few key patterns, or themes, that seem to consistently reappear regardless of the industry and companies need to plan for these.

1. General Lack of awareness and education about the value of sleep: Despite strong evidence of the relationship between insufficient sleep and health problems, most professionals are unaware of the amount of sleep they need, their level of sleep deprivation, and the implications for wellness and productivity. Because of this information dissymmetry, sleep is rarely incorporated into corporate wellness programs. Even individual health care professionals, who also have limited education on sleep, infrequently counsel their patients about healthy sleep habits and practices.

2. Betterment of sleep is not a C-Suite priority: Change has to start at the top. Leaders need to be more aware of the costs and realities of sleep deprivation. This is a big mountain to climb because most senior executives see this is a small issue, if one at all. Despite the release of a persuasive study in 2016 in Harvard Business Review which found a relationship between sleep and high-performing teams, few organization have changed corporate practices. From the experience of the working group, the beliefs of the C-Suite are deeply entrenched because most leaders come of age in a time where sleep was viewed as optional “and for wimps.” Beliefs are deep and hard to change.

3. Technology has created an “Always On” Work Culture: The average American worker spends at least 10 hours a day staring at digital device. And when we are not responding to urgent e-mails and text messages, we are “relaxing” by browsing Facebook, YouTube or one of the infinite numbers of electronic entertainment offerings. The march of technology continues on from our office, to our home and even into our bedrooms. Research studies of smartphones have found that using smartphones immediately before bedtime can affect the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and more broadly negatively impact the quality of your sleep. The “Always On” culture makes it incredibly difficult to resist the overtures of the last message and to fully unplug from work. This is a major source of work-related fatigue and impairment.

Enviable Corporate Practices

So who is getting it right? The working group was able to point to several practices and organizations that are starting to blaze the trail for what we hope to see other corporate leaders follow. Here’s a summary of some of the more innovative practices when it comes to managing sleep and alertness.

Redesigning the Work Schedule: Working 9 to 5 is a convention that most organizations are reluctant to challenge. However, in Denmark, pharmaceutical company, AbbVie, took the unusual step of assessing and training employees to understand their circadian rhythm and biological sleep preferences. The company redesigned work schedules and workflow based on their profiles. Similarly, in Germany, ThyssenKrupp, reorganized their shift-worker schedules to account for the sleep profiles of their steel workers. Resultantly, they are getting reports of better rested, happier and more productive workers.

Purposeful Napping: In 1995, a seminal “NASA study conducted on pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34 percent and alertness by 100 percent.” The NASA nap, or the good old-fashioned siesta, has been encouraged by several organizations. Zappos, Ben & Jerrys and Google are a few examples of companies that have added, and normalized, the use of nap rooms within their companies. Even Portland based performance company, Nike, is “just doing it” by encouraging the use of quiet rooms where employees can nap or meditate.

Collecting Data and Validating the Impact: One of the major challenges that consistently was raised by participants is that there isn’t enough persuasive data being collected on sleep and worker performance. In a 2015, The Economist Intelligence Unit and Humana teamed up to measure the relationship between wellness activities, including sleep and employee engagement. Employee morale and engagement in their companies’ mission and goals increased by up to 67 percent and 12 percent were less likely to experience health issues from work-related stress.

Behavioral Science and Sleep: Two healthcare companies are using the power of incentives to change their sleep culture. Sleep Score Labs, a leading sleep tech company (and participant in the Sleep Summit) launched a program that pays employees to improve their sleep by providing compensation for each night employees track their sleep with the SleepScore App and offering shortened work days if 90% participation in the program is achieved. And managed care giant, Aetna, has also been dabbling in the incentive structure space by challenging employees to get 20 nights of sleep for seven hours or more in a row, in exchange for a payout of up to $500 a year.

What Can Your Organization Do Right Now?

The working group believes much more can, and should, be done to advance the understanding and action by organizations to make employee alertness a priority. The following recommendations are actionable and can be implemented as an entire program or standalone activities.

Leader and Employee Training: In order to create lasting change, it is imperative to win the hearts and minds of people. Developing training programs that are focused on increasing awareness of sleep science, sleep habits, managerial accountability and a sustainable behavioral change must be a priority. Generic corporate guidelines from employee health and wellness is not enough. Creating an interpersonal engagement with your employees is essential to igniting a movement of well-being.

Rethinking Corporate Policies and Communications: A number of participants reflected on both formal, and informal, policies of their companies. And they found that many of the policies were out of step with the science and required revision. Some of the emphasized areas of policy change were: Employee travel, Use of technology, Email etiquette, Vacations and PTO and Designated areas for rest and the normalization of napping.

Quantifying the Loss AND Gain: The importance of sleep will remain anecdotal until organizations start to actively track, measure and report on key sleep metrics and the implications for employee productivity. There has been an explosion of low-cost and accessible measurement technology that can be used to conduct small and lean experiments that provide persuasive sleep measurement baselines and performance tracking. We measure what we value. By conducting small employee tests, it will allow for organizations to confirm the value of investing in sleep countermeasures.

Modifying the Work Environment: Rethink your office layout and design. Modifying environmental factors, such as lighting, to promote worker well-being and alertness is imperative. A recent study at Northwestern found that “there is a strong relationship between workplace daylight exposure and office workers’ sleep, activity and quality of life. Circadian rhythms are triggered by several biological factors, but they are also directly affected by signals from the environment. Light is the main cue influencing circadian rhythms.

Sleep is a complex and personal topic. As organizations begin to aggressively invest in corporate health and wellness, it is easy to focus primarily on the conspicuous activities like how many steps you take. But if organizations are serious about wellness and productivity, a more comprehensive approach to sleep is needed across industries.

* The following article is based on the research and insights gleaned from a first-of-its-kind event, the Better Sleep Summit. The summit brought together sleep scientists, sleep technology experts and health and wellness executives from nearly a dozen industries, including: Life Sciences, Transportation, Automotive, Chemical Manufacturing, Hospitality, Retail, Aerospace, Health & Fitness.

Dan is the Founder of Deliberate Innovation, led Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer and is a contributing writer for multiple journals on Innovation & Creativity.

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