Sleep: it’s as basic to life as breathing. So, why are so many Americans getting so little of it? According to the 2015 Sleep in America poll — conducted on behalf of the National Sleep Foundation — 13% of Americans reported rarely or never getting a good night’s sleep, while 32% reported sometimes getting a good night’s sleep. Insufficient sleep has become so pervasive that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed it a “public health problem.” Lack of sleep and poor quality of sleep is affecting how Americans work and whether they thrive.

Increasingly, employers are expressing concerns over this sleep epidemic. And with good reason. More workers seem to feel that sleep is just something they can shrug off, like postponing an appointment at the hairdresser. In fact, society is rampant with sleep “myths” that support today’s 24/7 awake cycle. You’ve heard them — or perhaps even thought them yourself: “I don’t need much sleep;” “I function fine on four hours a night;” or the classic “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”

[Image: Bloomberg]
[Image: Bloomberg]

Despite all the bravado, most sleepless Americans are driving, working and parenting in a mental fog. Sleep supports optimal mental focus and capability, including attitude, learning and recall, decision-making, prioritization capability, attention to detail, accuracy, conflict resolution, and communication style: all key qualities that employees need to deliver effective business results.

Sleeplessness can manifest itself in jitters, mood disorders, panic attacks and depression. In addition, sleep deprivation impacts the immune system, making individuals more prone to viruses and other infectious diseases, and has been associated with cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and shorter life span. The evidence shows that chronic sleeplessness of less than six hours per night can increase by 48% the likelihood of a heart-related problem earlier in life than typically expected.

What are the main culprits driving the cycle of non-sleep? We’ve long known that sleep can be negatively impacted by too much caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine, or by conditions such as sleep apnea or chronic pain. But today, in our 24/7 world, humans have many more attractions luring them away from sleep: televisions and computers have shifted from the family room and office into the bedroom, encouraging people to answer just a few more emails, or watch just one more late night show. In the 2015 Trends in Consumer Mobility Report, of the 1,000 participants surveyed, 71% said they usually sleep with or next to their mobile phones, and three percent said they sleep with the device in their hand. Despite the plethora of evidence showing that using computers and hand-held devices before bedtime interferes with sleep, Americans seem to think they need their electronic gadgets more than their sleep.
Other problems that keep employees tossing and turning include work stress, overtime hours, and anxiety.

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"Insufficient sleep has become so pervasive that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed it a public health problem.”

All these sleepless nights lead to increased presenteeism, absenteeism, on-the-job accidents, and potentially increased hospitalizations. Health improvement programs must strive to include sleep as a key element of good health.

What’s an employer to do?

Here are three strategies employers can use to encourage better sleep among employees.

1. Adopt sleep as a key component of your wellness culture. When most of us think about good health, we often prioritize in terms of weight management, fitness level, nutrition, stress management and smoking cessation. Most of us rarely include quality of sleep in the list. Adding “healthy sleep” as a high priority goal and topic of communications within your company culture can help change employee perceptions of the value of sleep. Develop a sleep campaign that includes the following educational elements:

  • A kickoff presentation on the value of sleep and the company goals around sleep
  • Information to challenge the misperceptions about sleep
  • Brochures, posters and drip emails that discuss sleep “hygiene” practices that are conducive to good sleep. For example: Developing consistent sleep patterns such as going to bed and getting up at the same time each day; optimizing comfort, including room temperature, bedding, and clothing; eliminating light from the bedroom including TV, iPad, smart phones, clocks with neon lights and other bright stimuli 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime and while in bed; eliminating noise and strong odors; avoiding alcohol, coffee or other stimulants before bed.

Sleep hygiene habits are proven to produce quality nighttime sleep and daytime alertness.

2. Include mindfulness meditation in your wellness program. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation — the nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through one’s mind — have been proven to help calm the brain’s arousal system, allowing us to separate our thoughts and emotions, and thereby reduce stress. In a clinical trial published in 2015 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, older adults with moderate sleep problems were divided into two groups and assigned to follow one of two programs. In one group, the adults learned good sleep hygiene behaviors. The other group underwent a six-week program on mindfulness meditation led by a certified teacher. At the end of the year-long study, the people who learned the mindfulness approach had greater improvements in sleep quality and fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression and fatigue than those who just learned sleep hygiene practices.

3. Provide sleep support. There are a number of ways your wellness program can support optimal sleep behaviors. For example:

  • Provide online interactive sleep education modules. You can use these to challenge and reward employees who participate in your program.
  • Provide onsite meditation or yoga introductory classes.
  • Provide onsite fitness programs. Regular fitness activities are beneficial in improving sleep later in the day.
  • Offer meditation CDs or DVDs free to all employees, or use them as rewards for those who participate in online or onsite sleep education or meditation classes.

A rested mind is a sharp mind. Helping your employees improve their sleep behaviors and increase their quality of sleep will pay off in better employee health and productivity.

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Douglas Metz

Douglas Metz

Douglas Metz is chief health services officer and executive vice president at American Specialty Health.