Changing the Culture of Sleep Deprivation at Work

By Jennifer Nelson

The sleep habits of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer were ridiculed on Twitter when she missed a meeting with ad execs because she overslept. While humorous on the one hand, the incident actually proves that lack of sleep affects every level of today’s workforce. It’s estimated that 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans have sleeping problems, and CEOs of mega conglomerates are no exception.

“People are not typically good judges of their own fatigue and impairment; they get used to the problems associated with fatigue and come to believe their lethargy, lack of focus, even ‘micro sleeps’ are normal,” said Dr. Dave Sharar, managing director of Chestnut Global Health, a Bloomington, Illinois, company that provides employee assistance programs.

Employees deal with increased workloads, stress and time-shifting, all of which undermine sleep quality.

What can companies do to help employees assess their sleep and improve both its length and quality, improving their employee’s alertness, productivity and preventing worksite accidents?

“Since poor sleep accounts for more than 30 percent of traffic and industrial accidents, sleep hygiene should be part of a company’s employee health program as much as diet, etc.,” said Dr. Murray Grossan, an ENT and founder of the Grossan Institute.

“For better sleep schedules, companies should require a number of hours worked, rather than a strict schedule where one needs to be at the office at a specific time in the morning,” said Kenny Kline, founder of Slumber Sage, an online mattress and sleep resource.

People prefer different sleep schedules, and have different obligations in the evening and morning that could force them to cut back on sleep if they don’t have worktime flexibility.

Nutrition also can have a big impact on sleep, and eating unhealthy options throughout the day may hinder quality sleep. Workplaces should have healthy snacks available and/or encourage their consumption.

“Companies can also encourage employees to pick a time and place for a restorative, 15-minute, onsite nap,” said Pam Kouri, Chestnut’s Health and Wellness director. “While it’s not always practical at more conventional workplaces, employees can increase the benefits of napping by picking the right time and keeping to it (usually just after lunch) and arranging suitable napping conditions—quiet, dark and cool.”

Senior management could also embrace sleep management as a productivity tool. “A well-rested employee is prepared, alert and performs at a high level, with lower risk of accident and injury,” Kouri said.

The key is both promoting the benefits of self-directed sleep management plans and providing employees with tools and proper guidance, and offering more robust company-sponsored programs that involve in-depth assessments, a personalized treatment plan and counseling to address the underlying problems that might be exacerbating sleep disorders.