How to support employees with better sleep habits

sleep employees
  • Symptoms of a lack of sleep in employees can include reduced concentration, impaired mobility and decreased reaction times.
  • Sleep management and ensuring a better work-life balance should be a part of health and wellbeing strategies.
  • Leading from the top down is effective in addressing that not prioritising rest results in poor long-term performance and wellbeing.

Nuffield Heath’s 2023 Healthier nation index, published in September 2023, revealed that just 36% of employees rate their sleep as good, and one-third only get between four to six hours of sleep per night. With this in mind, how can employers support their staff in developing and maintaining better sleep habits?

Identifying the need for support

A lack of sleep in employees can present as reduced concentration, impaired mobility and decreased reaction times, which can put those in manual or physical roles at risk of accident or injury. Other noticeable effects include fatigue, irritability, memory loss, an increased risk of errors, reduced pace of work and a higher number of sick days.

It is important to enable staff to speak openly and honestly about sleep challenges, as these are signs that something needs addressing, says Katie Fischer, adult and child behavioural sleep specialist at Wellness Cloud.

“Working parents with young children are particularly vulnerable to ongoing sleep disruption,” she says. “An online survey can be a great way to start this conversation and find out more about common sleep problems affecting the workforce, as well as the types of initiatives employees would value.”

With hybrid working now more commonplace, monitoring for signs is easier said than done. Regular one-on-one check-ins can be effective in detecting changes in behaviour, performance, attendance and punctuality, while training can help to recognise issues.

When signs are spotted, it is essential to be sensitive and confidential, because sleep can be affected by, or have an effect on, physical, mental and financial wellbeing, says Andrew Marchant, protection claims liaison manager and mental health first aider at Canada Life.

Effect on work schedules

Sleep, a lack of it, and both short and long-term sleep disorders can impact working hours and shift patterns. One example of a sleep disorder is obstructive sleep apnea, where breathing can stop and start repeatedly during sleep, leading to frequent awakenings, poor sleep quality and sleepiness during the day. This can impact employee performance and attendance.

Another is shift work sleep disorder, which occurs when employees work split or rotating shifts that are a mixture of days and nights with early starts and late finishes that fall outside standard sleep patterns. When this happens, biological body clocks become disrupted, resulting in interrupted sleep.

Living within a circadian rhythm helps to manage the chemicals in an employee’s body and when this is disturbed, it can be associated with anxiety and depression symptoms, says Gosia Bowling, national lead for mental health at Nuffield Health. “The lifestyle impacts of working shifts have been linked to obesity and heart disease, as unsocial hours and irregular shifts making it difficult to meet typical mealtimes.”

Tailored sleep advice is essential to help shift workers optimise restful sleep when there is opportunity, and also to manage caffeine intake and meal timings to build a consistent routine.

Wellbeing assistance

Employers can signpost individuals towards relevant emotional wellbeing resources, such as apps designed to improve sleep quality and create healthier bedtime routines through meditation or mindfulness.

They could also provide support through cognitive behavioural therapy, employee assistance programmes or menopause advice hubs, which is a condition that can also affect sleep. Through these, experts can support individuals whose mental health is impacted by poor sleep, helping to address factors that keep them awake or recognise thought patterns that trigger anxiety and stress.

Organisations should also try to find ways to encourage employees to make lifestyle changes, such as emphasising the benefits of exercise in regulating sleep patterns, says Bowling.

“Employers that are concerned that their teams are not taking breaks or are reluctant to switch off could arrange group exercise classes with a fitness instructor,” she says. “An outdoor run or power walk during lunch hours gets employees away from their desks and exposes them to natural daylight, promoting healthy sleep hormones.”

Employers should prioritise sleep management in their health and wellbeing strategies and set parameters around work and home life, such as reinforcing the times when employees are not expected to respond to emails in order to create a better balance.

They could also offer coaching sessions with specialists to overcome sleep difficulties that impact work and home life, says Fischer. “It’s important to talk about the benefits of having a consistent sleep schedule and share personal experiences and sleep habits,” she adds.

Communicating support

Line managers and those in senior roles should ensure they are sending the right messages by not working outside of normal hours themselves, and properly communicate that rest should be prioritised.

Running talks with health experts to discuss the impact of poor sleep could also be beneficial. “A session on sleep hygiene could focus on simple habits, such as establishing a non-negotiable bedtime routine and limiting electronics use when the working day is over,” explains Bowling. “This creates an open dialogue and shows a discussion is both welcomed and expected in the workplace.”

Employers should also communicate that some group risk products, such as group income protection and group critical illness cover, will offer support to employees who may have illnesses that affect their ability to sleep and are unable to work, through offering salary protection and a tax-free lump sum.

“Offering flexible or hybrid-working policies also allow employees to structure their working day around their needs, while training staff to be mental health first aiders establishes on-the-ground support,” Marchant adds.

Cultivating a culture that encourages health and wellbeing conversations and discourages an open-all-hours attitude can contribute to better employee wellbeing and help to improve any sleep concerns.