Slumped at your desk? Exhausted employees don’t work well

37% of employees report sleeping less than seven hours a night Pic: @reynermedia

Sleep deprivation in the workplace: it cost the UK economy £40 billion in loss of productivity in 2016, and causes employees to suffer from a host of mental and physical problems

Karōshi is a Japanese term which literally translates to “overwork death”. In 2017, a Japanese woman died from heart failure after logging 159 hours of overtime in a single month. Though things aren’t quite so bad here in the UK, sleep deprived employees pose a serious problem in the workplace, for both employees and employers. In today’s 24/7 society, it may seem like longer hours and increased workloads are necessary, but we stand to lose more than we gain by exhausting ourselves.

According to Britain’s Healthiest Workplace 2018 survey, 37 percent of employees sleep less than seven hours a night and lose an average of almost 36 productive days a year. The 9-5 workday is no longer the norm— employees spend longer hours at work and remain connected after they leave through smartphones. Between 2010 and 2015, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported a 15 percent increase in people working more than 48 hours a week. In short, if you worked 48 hours in a working week, and tried to sleep the recommended eight hours a night, you’d have just six free waking hours a day.

Max, 25, a senior business manager for a spacecraft company in Shoreditch, has been suffering from work-related insomnia for the past two years, and it’s taken a toll on his physical and mental health. He’s chosen to remain anonymous as he believes there’s an industry taboo on admitting you’re sleep deprived.

His job is high pressure— involving lots of international travel and strict deadlines. His sleep doctor says his problem was set off by a month of cross-continent travel. Max says this affected his productivity significantly. “It really affects my concentration, particularly if I’ve got to sit down and work on a big document or anything that’s going to take more than a half an hour or so,” he says.

The impact of sleep deprivation doesn’t stay in Max’s office though. “It’s affected my friendships a bit because I feel like when I’m really well-rested and feeling good and energetic, then I’m quite extroverted, but if I’m really tired then all I want to do is go to sleep,” he says. It’s been a problem physically as well; he’s noticed getting sick more often with “fevers, coughs, colds, sore throat and the flu— lots of minor crappy stuff,” he says. It has also taken a toll on his sex drive. “It has made me less inclined,” he says. “I don’t have a girlfriend or anything, just friends with benefits, but now I want to see them less.”

Max’s doctor, Dr. Hugh Selsick, is a sleep and insomnia psychiatrist specialised in cognitive behavioural therapy. He says his patients often have work-related problems due to their lack of sleep, specifically in their ability to perform. “If they’re doing a task that they are very familiar with they can often perform it very well, but if you throw in one thing that is unusual, which they have not been trained for, people who are sleeping less don’t have the ability to respond to it in the same way as someone who is well rested,” he says. Selsick also explained that there’s a much greater variability in performance, and the change can be sudden. “Someone who is sleep deprived can make the same diagram three times perfectly, and think they’re fine, but the fourth diagram could be disastrous,” he says.

Dr. Selsick also says that workplace stress can hinder employees’ sleep. A 2018 survey by The Stress Epidemic polled 1,600 employees, and found that over 40 percent of people regularly lost sleep due to workplace stress. Louise Padmore, co-founder of Work Well Being, says: “Clearly sleep deprived people do not make for happy and engaged employees.” She says their concentration is impaired, and they are more likely to demonstrate greater risk-taking behaviours. As a result, “communication is decreased, performance deteriorates and sickness increases.” 

However, employers can take steps to ameliorate the problem of sleep deprivation in the workplace. “Equipping employees with practical tools and insights to improve sleep can be invaluable, including breathing techniques, wind down rituals and managing energy throughout the day,” Padmore says. Normally, a design agency in Shoreditch, and Mahabis, a luxury slipper designer in Bethnal Green, have both had four-day working weeks since their founding, and report great results. 

It’s crucial to look within the organisation to assess whether the demands of the job or level of support an employee is receiving are contributing to the excess stress and worry that can impact sleep. “Some simple measures can make all the difference, such as encouraging breaks, ensuring exposure to natural light, promoting walking meetings, creating break-out spaces for rest and relaxation, and encouraging employees to take holidays,” Padmore says. 

Wondering what you can do to feel more rested at work? Here are five simple tips from Public Health England (PHE) Sleep and Recovery Toolkit:

  1. Excessive screen time can hinder sleep patterns. Take screen breaks, including breaks from social media and news, throughout the day
  2. Proper hydration helps the body recover during sleep. Make sure to drink water during the day
  3. Sunshine helps the body get back into natural rhythms that lead to better sleep. Try and get some natural light by taking a break or having your lunch outside
  4. Moving periodically throughout the day helps circulation, and in turn promotes better sleep. Take a brief walk during your lunch break to get your blood flowing
  5. Make sure that you take your full holiday entitlement: it is essential in creating a work/life balance and reducing stress

Follow our Sleepless London series this week to find out more about sleep loss and the impact it can have. #SleeplessLondon

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