Webinar: Sleep's importance for mental health in the workplace

24 February 2022

As an employer or manager, you might assume that what time your employees go to bed and how much sleep they get is none of your business.

However, as the think-tank RAND Europe has shown, sleep, and in particular sleep deprivation, is very much something employers should be concerned about. A lack of sleep among workers, especially good-quality sleep, costs the UK economy up to £40bn each year in lost productivity, it has been calculated.

What's more, this has only got worse during the pandemic. According to researchers from Southampton University, the lockdowns and stresses of Covid-19 triggered a sharp rise in anxiety-related sleeping problems, with as many as one in four Britons now suffering from insomnia.

It was this wake-up call that prompted WPA to hold a highly informative webinar on the subject of 'why sleep is an employer's business'. Led by 'sleep evangelist' and scientist Dr Sophie Bostock, the event highlighted that:

  • The 'cost' of sleep deprivation is more than someone feeling irritable or unable to concentrate. Lack of sleep carries an opportunity cost in terms of creativity, learning and engagement at work. Sleep loss catalyses mistakes and accidents as well as amplifying health risks.
  • Employers can make a difference by focusing on improving education and training, their environment and culture and, where appropriate, clinical screening and support.
  • Sleep trackers and wearables, while they can have benefits, can have downsides, not least around data-sharing concerns and potentially heightening 'good sleep' anxiety.

"My goal today is to try and convince you that we have a large opportunity as employers to help people improve their health, wellbeing and performance through supporting their sleep," Dr Bostock explained.

Webinar: Sleep's importance for mental health in the workplace

Dr Sophie Bostock discusses the 'cost' of sleep deprivation, how employers can make a difference and how sleep trackers and wearables can have some downsides.

Risks and 'costs' of sleep deprivation

Dr Bostock highlighted that sleep deprivation in the context of work is about much more than someone simply feeling tired, irritable or unable to concentrate. Sleep deprived workers have less empathy with customers, are less innovative and less able to accurately assess risk. In safety-critical environments, being more prone to making a mistake or causing an accident can be 'deadly' serious.

Lack of sleep can have wider long-term and even potentially fatal health consequences, too. "If you think of any health condition - cancer, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, stroke - I would guarantee you there is evidence that either lack of sleep or irregular sleep patterns will amplify your risks of that condition," Dr Bostock said.

For example, research has suggested that disruption to the circadian rhythms or cancer-related genes may be one reason why night-shift workers are at higher risk of cancer.

Susceptibility to viral infection is three times higher for those who regularly get fewer than seven hours sleep a night, Dr Bostock pointed out. The risk of dementia for someone in their fifties or sixties is 30% higher for those who get fewer than six hours sleep. And the risk of developing future anxiety or depression trebles for those with persistent or chronic insomnia.

Poor sleep affects all aspects of cognitive performance. In fact, sleeping for just five hours for four nights in a row can have an effect similar to being over the drink-driving limit. "You wouldn't tolerate someone who was drunk coming into work, and yet we often turn a blind eye to sleep deprivation," Dr Bostock said.

Three ways employers can make a difference

The good news is that, even with the pandemic having ramped up sleepless nights for many of us, there is much employers can do to help. "The scale of opportunity to address these things is huge," said Dr Bostock. There were, she argued, three main areas where employers can make a difference:

  • Education and training.
  • Environment and culture.
  • Clinical screening and support.

Addressing education and training first, Dr Bostock emphasised this was about employers and managers making it their business to understand how sleep works. "Education really can make a difference. What are the things that control the timing and quality of your sleep? So, for example, taking employees through the importance of circadian rhythms; the importance of routine; the roles of light, food and exercise and so on," she advised.

This then needed to translate into action on the ground, especially addressing environmental or cultural 'triggers' in your organisation that may be encouraging bad sleep habits. This could include having a long-hours culture, demanding workloads or expecting 'always on' availability.

"For example, some employers are now restricting the receiving and giving of emails overnight, from 10.00pm to 6.00am. That's not going to work in every workplace but it is definitely an interesting conversation to have," said Dr Bostock.

Finally, on clinical screening and support, Dr Bostock said: "There has been a sea-change in our understanding of the clinical science of sleep. Poor sleep is no longer seen as simply a symptom of another mental health disorder. Sleep is a driver of wellbeing. If you help someone to improve their sleep, you can also expect improvements in mental health." The primary treatment for insomnia is now focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-I), something widely available through digital programmes, she pointed out in conclusion to the main part of her presentation.

Wearables and value of 'catching up' on sleep

The question-and-answer session that followed touched on a wide range of other areas. Dr Bostock was asked for her view on, if you're not getting enough sleep during the working week, is it a good idea to try to 'catch up' at the weekend?

"What happens when we do that is we cause something called 'social jetlag'. We are pushing our body clocks forwards and backwards, putting strain on the body. So, we adapt during the week and then we delay things at the weekend. But, come Monday morning, it is as if we have flown in from Tel Aviv!" she pointed out.

"If you can get enough sleep during the working week, your daytime performance will improve. If your only option is to catch up at weekends, however, it is still better to do that than miss out on that sleep entirely," she added.

Dr Bostock was asked for her opinion on wearable sleep trackers. Are they a good idea and is there 'a sweet spot' we should be aiming for in terms of 'good' sleep?

"I have a love/hate relationship with trackers. It's great to be able to track the things which impact on your sleep, but each tracker tells a slightly different story. The technology is improving, but they are not 100% accurate," Dr Bostock cautioned. "The only way really to measure sleep is to measure what is going on in the brain."

"We don't have a perfect recipe for a good night of sleep; it depends on what you have done during the day and also how your sleep was in the previous few nights. On average working age adults will usually spend about 50% in the lighter stages of sleep and then 20-25% in REM sleep, with a little bit of time awake and the remainder in deep sleep," she said. "But we are all different. The most important measure of sleep quality is how you feel during the day."

Dr Bostock concluded by offering some cautionary words for employers thinking about using wearables to study and evaluate, say, the links between sleep and employee shift patterns.

"It is important, ethically, to consider that a) there will be a lot of people who really don't want to share their sleep data and b) focusing in on their sleep in this way can make them more anxious," she said, highlighting that there is even a medical condition associated with this called 'Orthosomnia', or becoming obsessed with getting a 'perfect' night's sleep.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.