Is sleep management the next big thing in workplace health and wellbeing?

Sleep management 2016

Need to know:

  • Lack of quality sleep can affect employee productivity, engagement and stress levels.
  • Employers must gauge how to tackle employees’ sleep problems to best suit their needs.
  • Sleep management programmes could include seminars, data analysis and even the introduction of sleeping pods in the workplace.

Addressing sleeping habits and their impact on health and productivity could be the next big thing in workplace wellbeing programmes, particularly if UK employers follow the example of US organisations. More than a third (39%) of US employers offer programmes addressing sleep disorders, compared to 32% in 2014, according to data collected for Mercer’s National survey of employer-sponsored health plans, published in November 2015.

Affect on employees’ health

The amount of sleep a person has can greatly affect their concentration and productivity, so a good night’s sleep is important for both employees’ welfare and that of the organisation. In the long-term, poor sleep hygiene could prove damaging to employees’ motivation and engagement. Mark Winwood, clinical director, psychological health, at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “A decent night’s sleep has a huge impact on productivity and overall brain health.”

Poor sleeping habits can also take their toll on employees’ mental wellbeing. “Lack of sleep produces tonnes of cortisol hormone, which is associated with stress; it hijacks the frontal lobe of the brain so you can’t think positively,” explains Winwood.

In fact, employees with below-average sleep quality are 54% more likely to experience higher stress levels than those with average or above-average sleep quality, according to Global Corporate Challenge’s Insights study, published in December 2014.

Employers can support employees by educating them about the importance of sleep and communicating information about what can be done to improve sleep quality and quantity, says Nick Boyton, client relationship director at Broadstone Corporate Benefits. “Sleep management could help employers understand the potential underlying health issues in their workforce,” he adds.

Sleep management programmes

Employers can introduce sleep management programmes into their current health and wellbeing strategies, which will complement other elements such as healthy eating and exercise promotion. Winwood says: “Employers should be promoting sleep just as they would any other health and wellbeing benefit; by getting the most senior employees involved first, and modelling behaviours from the top down.”

It is best for employers to have a health and wellbeing strategy in place before implementing a sleep management programme, says Beate O’Neil, head of wellness consulting at Punter Southall Health and Protection. “Sleep management is next on the agenda for employers that already have strategies,” she says.

A sleep management programme can include a number of elements. These can range from sleep pods in the workplace to seminars that inform staff about the dangers of overusing their smartphone or tablet to help to improve their behaviours. Angela Steel, director, employee wellness and nutrition at Super Wellness, says: “A lot of people go to bed late and get up early, which can influence a lack of work-life balance, especially with how much technology creeps into employees’ lives.”

Utilise employee data 

However, sometimes technology can also provide answers. The increase in the use of wearable technology within health and wellbeing programmes means that employees are able to easily track their sleeping patterns. Data mined from health and wellbeing programmes, including sleep management, is a valuable information source from which an employer can form its approach. For example, data such as employees’ resting heart rate, how much rapid eye movement (REM) sleep they get, blood pressure, amount of exercise and diet can be collated to get an overall picture of the workforce’s health.

Jay Brewer, professional head of clinical wellbeing at Nuffield Health, says: “People are becoming walking, talking data machines, and wearable technology has become so popular and affordable, and data-collection policies are so easy to opt out of should employees want to.”

Data collection can be completely anonymous and analysed as an entire organisation rather than individually. Tom Gaynor, employee benefits director at Metlife, says: “Employers could monitor the collective weight loss of the entire workforce and the amount of sleep the whole workforce had through a week.”

Employers could then offer a reward for the entire workforce for the amount of weight lost or sleep gained to keep them motivated to continue and to encourage teamwork.

Employer support

Educating staff about the importance of healthy sleeping habits is beneficial to both the individual and the business as a whole. As Nuffield Health’s Brewer says: “Better sleep hygiene means improved productivity.”

Employers can help staff to improve their quality of sleep by educating them about the dangers of the lack of it. “Employers need to educate workers about the dangers of sleep deprivation, for instance, higher risk of stroke and breast cancer,” says Gaynor.

When implementing a sleep management programme, employers need to carefully consider the needs of their workers and address the many myths concerning sleep and productivity, such as the idea that long hours equate to high performance. As Brewer says: “Benefits for better work-life balance are growing, and in the next five years sleep management will become bigger.”

Learn more about the latest trends in health and wellbeing at Employee Benefits Live 2016 on 11-12 October at Olympia National, London

Blue Apple case studyBlue Apple improves employees’ sleep quality by 26%

Catering firm Blue Apple achieved a 26% improvement in its employees’ quality of sleep between September and December 2015, throughout which it ran a wellness programme provided by Super Wellness.

The organisation also tracked stress resilience, which improved by 10% over the period, as well as food cravings, which reduced by 16%.

Additionally, Blue Apple kept track of its 330 employees’ concentration levels, which increased by 19%, while overall mood improved by 16%.

The programme focused on healthy eating, and included presentations on digestive health. Employees who took part were given monthly confidential body composition checks, as well as group coaching sessions.

Sarah Prentice, business development manager at Blue Apple, says: “In today’s world, everyone has so much to do and is constantly busy using technology. So sleep is more important than ever, especially considering that it improves productivity and concentration, and decreases stress.

“We wanted to emphasise the importance of a good diet; our head office used to be full of sweets and cakes, but now there are avocados and nuts everywhere. It’s been such a good change.”

Blue Apple’s leadership team also took part in the scheme, which Prentice felt was a key factor in its success.

She says: “We want employees to feel better and live longer, and their welfare is so important to being a successful organisation. If employees can sleep more and get more done, it can only be a good thing for the organisation.”

Dr JuniperViewpoint: Sleep management schemes can boost productivity and wellbeing

Ask any hard-pressed employee how they are genuinely feeling and there is an 80% chance they will tell you they are tired and never seem able to catch up on their sleep. One-third of our life is taken up by sleeping and all the evidence suggests getting enough of it is critical to our health and wellbeing.

While workplace health initiatives that focus on aspects such as diet and exercise are fairly commonplace in employee wellbeing programmes, interventions to support staff getting better quality sleep are unusual. This is somewhat surprising given the strong evidence that staff are less productive and more prone to make mistakes, act unsafely and fall ill if they are sleep deprived.

Sleep management programmes can take a variety of different guises; they can come in the form of educative training made available via workshops or accessed online. Or they can have a physical presence such as installed sleeping pods or on-site mini-bedrooms where fatigued staff can go for a restorative nap.

Sleep programmes can be cast in both preventative and remedial health camps. However, wherever they sit in an organisation’s health framework, they will only succeed if there is an established wellbeing culture. By this, I mean senior leadership actively supports them, their managers are able to signpost them, they are easy to access, they are evaluated for impact and the actual content, whatever the format, is relevant to the workforce in question.

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Top-flight athletes make sleep a priority in their daily training routines. As Usain Bolt once said: Sleep is extremely important to me; I need to rest and recover in order for the training I do to be absorbed by my body.” If this is normal operating procedure for sporting professionals, we can certainly expect to see more sleep initiatives being introduced for our own weary corporate athletes.

Dr Bridget Juniper is director at health data consultancy Work and Wellbeing