The cost of poor sleep to UK Plc during COVID-19 and what you can do about it

16 July 2020

What with having to deal with a scary global pandemic, an unprecedented shuttering of the economy, children stuck at home, and suddenly having to get to grips with working from home, it's perhaps no wonder many of us have been tossing and turning at night recently.

Indeed, a poll by academics at King's College London and pollsters at Ipsos Mori has concluded that fully half of the UK has been sleeping less well during lockdown, rising to 62% of those facing financial difficulties because of coronavirus.

As well as anxiety, we've seen a blurring of home and work boundaries (especially for those having to juggle work with childcare) and many of us have been drinking more alcohol, taking less exercise and eating less well, all of which can affect our ability to sleep.

Cost of poor sleep to UK PLC

Yet, while the lockdown has amplified a problem, sleep is something more employers are now recognising as a workplace as well as a personal health and wellbeing issue.

Why? After all, we (or most of us) don't sleep on the job? Sleep is something that happens outside of work, and what we do in the run-up to bedtime is our own business. Right?

Well, yes and no. Self-evidently, at one level when and how, even where, we sleep is no one's business but our own. Yet, at the same time, there is growing understanding that the demands of our "always on" working world can play an important, and negative, role in why as many as one in three of us regularly suffers from insomnia or disrupted sleep.

To that end, poor sleep is no longer just a health and safety issue for those working in safety-critical roles. It is something that brings with it a whole baggage - and costs - around lost productivity, engagement, attendance and absence, and "fitness" to work for all employers.

The think-tank Rand Europe, for example, has estimated that poor sleeping habits cost the UK economy as much as £40bn a year, with tired employees being less productive and more likely to be absent from work. The UK loses some 200,000 working days a year because of insomnia and poor sleep, it has calculated.

Moreover, as a recent event for WPA by "sleep evangelist" Dr Sophie Bostock highlighted, sleep deprivation is connected to an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular ill health, breast cancer, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, accidents, infection, pain, cognitive decline, anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, falls, addiction, and general early mortality.

So, what's the answer? Dr Bostock emphasised it comes down to three things: education, environment and, for more serious cases, clinical support. Let's look at each in turn.

Education - developing good 'sleep hygiene'

No employer wants to feel like they're "nannying" their workers. But if we're exhausted or struggling night after night, the offer of help on how to get into better sleep habits - a good night-time routine, the role of food and exercise and so on - may be welcomed by employees.

For example, the Sleep Charity has a range of practical, easy-to-implement "sleep hygiene" tips to drop into your daily routine. A lot of these are common sense like, in the evening, not going to bed hungry, thirsty or over-full; reducing use of screens; and not using alcohol to get to sleep. The key is not to be afraid to wrap them into your health promotion conversations.

Environment - from emails to exercise

As well as personal change, there is much employers can do to make the work environment more "sleep friendly" (although you may want to think how you phrase that in any meeting).

One useful resource here is Public Health England's and Business in the Community's Sleep and Recovery Toolkit. This outlines ways that employers can create the right "sleep culture" within the workplace, including things such as providing access to natural light and introducing flexitime for employees who travel or work across different time zones.

For example, encouraging employees to get outside into the daylight and have a proper break in the middle of the day - whether from their home or physical office - can help with alertness levels, especially that post-lunchtime productivity "dip" we often feel.

Equally, encouraging exercise, screen breaks and physical activity are beneficial not just in reducing sedentary working but can also help people to feel more sleepy at the end of the day.

Instilling good email etiquette - not emailing late at night or at weekends and not expecting immediate replies - can encourage people to properly relax and unwind during the evening.

Intervention - CBT and Employee Assistance Programmes

Finally, and especially for those who may be desperate with severe insomnia, offering clinical support may be helpful, for example online CBT tools such as those offered by Sleepio or more widely through an EAP. There are also a range of medical interventions that can help with conditions such as sleep apnoea.

"It is not a question of employers trying to limit or direct what people get up to in their time away from work, especially in the evenings or at night," explains WPA Commercial Director Mark Southern.

"But a high-stress, long hours culture (whether in a home office or not) and an 'always on' email culture can exacerbate poor sleeping habits. These, in turn, can have a knock-on effect on people's productivity, health and energy and quality of life."

"The pandemic has highlighted how vulnerable our sleep patterns are to stress," says Dr Bostock. "However, the relationship goes both ways - better sleep improves wellbeing and increases resilience to stress. Research shows that employers who promote a culture which values sleep are rewarded with a more engaged, happier, healthier, innovative and productive workforce," she adds.

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.