We now think of the workplace as a critical, influential place for employee health. Like diet and exercise, sleep is an essential pillar of wellness and a critical part of total health. Sleep can affect performance, social behavior, relationships, and the ability to lead and inspire others.
How can organizations influence their employees’ sleep for the better?
Here are six ways companies can bring sleep to work.
1. Promote sleep education
Many people remain dangerously under-educated about sleep. Unaware of the full impact of sleep over their mental and physical health, their relationships, performance, and safety, employees — and employers themselves — are often ill-equipped to begin taking steps to improve their sleep.
Connecting with a sleep expert can help organizations design and implement targeted sleep education programs that meet their employees’ needs. Organizational leaders are wise to be first in line to take advantage of sleep education — and to demonstrate in practice what they’ve learned. Modeling sleep-supportive behaviors is one of the most powerful ways leaders can make sleep a priority for employees.
2. Integrate sleep into workplace wellness programs
Many organizations are already moving toward an integrated, total health approach. This presents a rich opportunity to create a place for sleep as a key component in total health and safety for employees.
There’s a body of scientific evidence demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of treating sleep problems, in lowering health care costs, and in increasing productivity. Evidence demonstrates a significant direct financial return for organizations that invest in workplace wellness, as well as benefits like reduction in turnover, increased productivity, and better morale.
3. Use flextime to promote good sleep habits
Research indicates that flextime increases nightly sleep by nearly an hour. Flextime is an influential component to work-life balance — just as long as flextime doesn’t turn into “all the time.” Employers must take care to allow employees to take advantage of flextime in ways that best fit their lives.
The preference for morning or evening in an individual’s sleep-wake cycle is what’s known as a chronotype. These biologically-rooted preferences give rise to the early birds and night owls among us. There exists a long history of stigma for late risers, who are often unfairly judged for biological clocks that don’t conform easily to society’s clock. Late chronotypes are more likely to build up sleep debt, which puts them at greater risk for health, safety, and productivity issues.
Employees who use flextime to begin work later in the day are likely to be instinctively following their body’s own biological guide to when they are best able to perform and what is best for their health.
4. Reduce shift work and overtime
Nearly 15 million people in the U.S. are engaged in some form of shift work, and more than 48% of the U.S. workforce works more than 48 hours in a week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
People who work shifts are more likely to experience chronic sleep problems and the serious health and safety risks associated with them. Shift workers are often keeping schedules that are deeply at odds with their circadian rhythms, the 24-hour biological rhythms that help govern the sleep-wake cycle.
When shift work is unavoidable, employers can help reduce the risks and burden placed on shift-work employees by educating them about sleep, offering programs that target the specific challenges of shift work, and making sure that shift-work employees have enough time off between shifts to rest and avoid sleep deprivation and sleep debt.
5. Make sleep a part of the workplace
This can include nap rooms or other designated sleeping areas. But designating sleeping spaces at work is only an initial step. Nap rooms make sense when employees know how use naps effectively and when they feel safe and encouraged to nap and rest during the workday. That mean’s seeing supervisors and organizational leaders using naps and providing open encouragement of the practice.
Sleep education includes understanding how to nap effectively, to make the most of brief, refreshing, mentally stimulating sleep without undermining daytime alertness or nighttime sleep. Generally, a 20-minute nap is ideal. Making sleep a workplace priority that’s visible and openly, regularly discussed will lead employees to pay more attention to their own sleep and to take advantage of sleep-encouraging offerings at the workplace.
There exists tremendous potential for employers and organizations to transform the lives and the health of their employees — and their workplace performance — while also reducing costs to their own bottom line. Recognizing sleep for what it is, not an option or a luxury, but a powerful resource and a competitive advantage, organizations that embrace sleep and commit to helping employees sleep better can expect to see both profound positive change and measurable benefit.