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Why Sleep Should Be a Wellbeing Focus at Your Company

Els van der Helm


February 18, 2021

It’s the start of 2019 and many HR professionals are planning programs to increase their employees’ well-being. These tend to focus on increasing physical activity (think exercise challenges), nutrition or perhaps meditation. All great topics, however, I’d argue the most important topic, which is often missing, is the topic of sleep.

We are not sleeping enough.

We are currently witnessing a global sleep deprivation epidemic:

35% of people sleep less than 6 hours a night… while most people need between 7 to 9 hours.

48% of people have trouble falling or staying asleep at least 1 night a week — that’s almost half of the people reading this blog.

Clearly, we’re not getting the sleep that we need. Although the specific reasons for our sleep deprivation differ from individual to individual, there is a common theme I often hear from my clients: “I want to get the most out of life and there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do all I want to do”. Whether the time is reserved for work or family or personal time, sleep is not at the top of our priority list and often gets deprioritized under pressure. However, to get most out of life, sleep needs to be reprioritized, both by individuals and companies.

Sleep deprivation costs U.S. companies more than $63 billion every year.

A Harvard study found that in the U.S. alone, companies are losing $63 billion each year due to sleep-deprived employees. This is partially due to the lack of awareness about the prevalence and consequences of chronic sleep deprivation:

First, it impacts our physical and mental health:

Second, it affects our safety:

Third, our productivity suffers:

Why companies should act to fight sleep deprivation

While programs centered on work-life balance and employee health and well-being are gaining traction in the workplace to increase productivity and engagement, reduce absenteeism and decrease health care costs, the topic of sleep is often still missing from such programs. Sleep deprivation is, at one level, obviously, a personal issue and part of a larger wellbeing and productivity challenge that also includes mental relaxation, healthy nutrition, and physical activity. However, in an increasingly connected world, in which many companies now expect their employees to be on call and to answer emails and be available well beyond traditional working hours, sleep is an important topic to be brought up in the workplace.

The better we sleep, the healthier we eat, the more we move or exercise and the better we cope with stress.

I argue that sleep should be the number one priority for companies to cover in their health and well-being programs because it directly increases the effectiveness of all other health efforts: The better we sleep, the healthier we eat, the more we move or exercise and the better we cope with stress. Many employees are unaware that they are getting insufficient sleep and assume constantly being tired is normal. This group isn’t likely to seek out the help of a sleep psychologist (let alone have easy access to one) therefore education through the employer might be the best chance at improving their sleep, their health and thus, also their performance.

Improving employees’ sleep is a win-win situation for both the employer and the employee. Employees will improve their physical and mental health, in addition to being more productive. Beyond a direct impact on productivity, an employer will also benefit from lower absenteeism and lower health care costs. These effects trickle down — for example, research has shown that when leaders get good sleep, their teams are more engaged. On the other hand, the employee will enjoy work (and life) more as sleep directly impacts our mood and our emotional reactivity.

Considering so many of us regard “being happy and fulfilled” a major life goal, it’s puzzling why we cut down on sleep when it’s, in fact, a direct driver of our daily happiness. Therefore, I am urging HR professionals to put sleep on the agenda, leading to employees being healthier, more productive and happier.

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