Person with coffee mug photo by Inside Weather via Unsplash
Inside Weather, Unsplash.
Inside Weather, Unsplash.

Are You Awake at Work?

Research shows that lack of sleep can hurt performance at the office. Here’s how employers can nurture a well-rested workforce.

How did you sleep last night? It’s probably no surprise that your answer might very well determine how well you’re doing at work today.

People who averaged six and a half hours of sleep or less actually tend to perform poorly at work, according to research by Hult International Business School in Cambridge, Mass. According to the survey, people who weren’t well-rested struggled with creative thinking, completing tasks on time and staying focused in meetings. Plus, at least 84% of them felt more irritable as a result and more than half said they were stressed out, anxious and frustrated.

Healthy adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Studies also show that the quality of sleep affects your physical health by impacting your immune system. One study shows that people who get less than seven hours of sleep are three times more likely to get a cold. 

Finding the right sleep balance can be tricky for many people. Blame today’s globalized, always-on work culture. The longer hours in the office—and work hours that inevitably trickle into our personal lives—can cause stress and disrupt our sleep patterns, which then harms our work. In fact, research estimates that lost productivity due to poor sleep costs companies an average of $1,967 per employee each year. That means that if you’ve got 400 employees and half of them don’t sleep well, and they come to work unmotivated, tired and make mistakes, then it could cost you $393,400 a year.

That poses a thorny issue for employers. How can you possibly manage the sleep habits of your workforce, if you can’t—and shouldn’t—police their personal lives?

You can’t read your team a bedtime story, but you can adjust your work culture to ensure people feel more rested and are more likely to get a good night’s sleep. An obvious tip: don’t overwork your employees. Consider whether you’ve set reasonable expectations, deadlines and workloads. The morale of your office can play a big role in what they’re carrying home at night.

To ensure employees have the best shut eye possible, employers can reduce stress with a number of approaches, from wellness education and better work hours to mindfulness and napping.

Strict work-life rules

Entrepreneur Matthew Ross always has sleep on his mind. That’s because he owns Slumber Yard, a Reno, Nev. company that manages online reviews of mattresses. He understands the impact sleep can have on his 12 employees’ performance, so his company gives every new hire a free mattress based on a survey of their sleep patterns.

But more important, he says, is the company’s work culture, which prioritizes stress reduction. He created a special room for relaxation with a massage chair, white noise machine and mattresses on which people can take a break and relax.

The Slumber Yard also bans work emails from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

A similar trick employed by other employers: banning Slack conversations in the off hours and encouraging people to mark themselves as away when they are indeed off the clock.

Please both night owls and early birds

Not everyone has the same circadian rhythm, a fact that’s driven by evolutionary needs of tribes to stay alert around the clock, says Daniel Gartenberg, Penn State sleep researcher and CEO of Sonic Sleep, which provides personalized sleep coaching. (He admitted during the interview that even he wasn’t sleeping well because he was stressed about his sleep research.)

Gartenberg recommends that companies allow employees to work flexible hours best suited to their own sleep patterns. If collaborative work is needed, then establishing core hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., for instance, can allow employees to meet in the middle, accommodating both early birds and night owls.

Employers can also host ongoing workshops to educate and encourage stress reduction. This can include mindfulness, communication skills, and incorporating play and creativity into the workday, all of which contribute to reducing stress, says Amanda Stemen, a mindfulness consultant and psychotherapist. “It sounds like preschool, but all have been shown to be just as beneficial for adults as for children,” she says.

Sleep seminars with tips on how to establish a better sleep routine can also help. For instance, experts say that people who struggle with insomnia should actually get out of bed if they can’t sleep after twenty minutes. That way, bed is associated with sleep—not restless insomnia.

Exercise, too, can be a potential solution to sleep problems, and companies can encourage people to go to the gym, organize group exercises and promote overall physical wellness at work. One study suggests that moderate exercise significantly alleviates chronic insomnia, although it’s still unknown what specific kind of exercise is best.

Bring ease to your office

Companies can literally make room for healthier mindsets by giving more thought to their office environments. That could mean adding more natural light and clean air, which improves how people feel,  or adding nap rooms and meditation spaces that bring a sense of ease to work.

As new research emerges showing the vast benefits of napping—from increased energy to better memory—companies are embracing special nap rooms. Sleeping two hours or more is too long and will likely set you up for a restless night’s sleep. But a 20-minute snooze is perfect, according to the National Sleep Foundation. 

Meditation is also on the rise and has been shown not only to aid stress relief but also to improve overall health. Mediation rooms and booths, such as the Calm Booth by ROOM, allow employees to step in and settle a racing mind that otherwise can keep them up at night. The Calm Booth comes with 12 annual subscriptions to the Calm app, which has a wide variety of guided meditations and relaxation exercises.

Sometimes, the stress that keeps a person awake doesn’t necessarily come from work. But work can make it worse, says Robyn Flint, a former mental health counselor who is now employed at Effortless Insurance.

Employers ultimately may not be able to keep their employees well-rested, but they can establish preventative measures to help combat it, whether it’s better hours, clear boundaries, meditation or napping.