Four in ten Australians aren’t sleeping well and it’s costing businesses billions. HRM speaks with a sleep expert to find out how to combat this health crisis.
You might think that employee sleep habits shouldn’t be on HR’s agenda, but when you find out that poor sleep costing Australian businesses around $66.3 billion each year, you might change your mind.
This figure is pulled from a 2017 report from the Sleep Health Foundation, Asleep on the Job: costs of inadequate sleep in Australia, which also found that around 39.8 per cent of Australians experience some form of inadequate sleep.
HRM spoke with sleep health expert Dr Carmel Harrington, managing director of Sleep for Health and author of The Sleep Diet and The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, to find out more.
A brief history of health in Australia
We’re not good at identifying sleep health as an important topic that’s worth discussing, says Harrington. “Sleep is our third pillar of health. We’re very comfortable talking about nutrition and exercise at work, but very few of us know enough about sleep to talk about it in a way that sparks interest.”
To contextualise employees’ lack of sleep, Harrington takes a step back in history to analyse the origins of the three pillars of health.
“Before the 1960s, cars were unusual, not every family had one. But in the 60s, nearly everyone did. This is when we lost incidental exercise.”
Harrington refers to a national TV health campaign from the 1970s called Life Be In It. In the campagin’s ads an obese, cartoon man named Norm was used to raise public awareness around the importance exercise. “It was around this time that the exercise industry was born.”
In the mid-80s, Norm was back. This time the campaign focused on healthy eating. This is when the nation became much more health conscious, understanding the importance of a balanced diet, says Harrington. “Prior to the 1970s, we didn’t have these big super markets and there was no fast food.”
Cut to today and it’s smart devices and the internet that are the new phenomenon causing us health issues. While we don’t have a kitsch cartoon teaching us about the dangers of plugging in too often, there are modern day campaigns – movements like Look Up – that encourage us to take time away from our devices to benefit our physical and mental health.
“Before 2010-2012, not everyone had a mobile device. By around 2014, they were never out of our site. We can shop at 3am in the morning, we can Skype our friends overseas. These devices are very addictive.
“We’ve got a 24/7 world in a way that we’ve never, ever had in human history. As a result, we’ve lost discipline around our sleep.”
As a lover of technology, Harrington is quick to clarify that she’s not saying we shouldn’t be interacting with it. We just need to be taught about a healthy balance, just like Norm did with his diet and couch time.
Running on empty
Lack of sleep can lead to a myriad of health problems.
“If you’re not sleeping enough, you’ve got a five times greater risk of developing depression. In the long term, we’re much more likely to develop obesity, type two diabetes, metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular disease if we’re not sleeping enough. These effects might not present in the workplace today or tomorrow, but it could be happening down the line.”
Those who are burning the candle at both ends, and not getting enough sleep as a result, can fool themselves into thinking the three or four hours of sleep they’re getting each night is enough. Harrington shares a story of a seminar she held at a tech startup. A few of the employees told her they were averaging four hours of sleep each night. One woman actually took umbrage when Harrington said that wasn’t enough.
A young employee in his early 30s stood up and told her about how he used to work really hard and get around three hours of sleep. He was otherwise fit and healthy – a frequent runner. But about a year ago, while he was running, he had a brain haemorrhage.
“We’ve got a 24/7 world in a way that we’ve never, ever had in human history. As a result, we’ve lost discipline around our sleep.” – Dr Carmel Harrington
Harrington explains that when we are trying to get by on four hours of sleep, we have a lot of adrenaline pumping through our system and we’re hyper alert. In such circumstances events like the young man’s catastrophic health crisis, which went on to have long-term effects, are not uncommon.
“When you’re running on empty you’re not giving your body enough downtime. You’re not letting your cells properly repair and restore to make sure that your cardiovascular system, your nervous system and your respiratory system are all working at an optimal level.”
Bring the siesta to Australia
Have you ever experienced a drop in alertness at around 2-3pm? I’m suffering through it right now. My eyes are glued to the screen but I’m just re-reading the same line of text re-reading the same line of text re-reading the same line of text two or three times before it sinks in.
Harrington says there are two common natural peaks in the day, roughly 9am-10am and 9pm-10pm. That morning peak is a great time to dive into creative work. She advises leaders to encourage, not just condone, taking breaks at this time.
“If you’re feeling really tired at work, the best way to improve your alertness is to go off and have a power nap for 20-25 minutes. This has true physiological benefits. What happens when we nap is we decrease our levels of the sleeping neurotransmitter adenosine (the chemical in our brain that tells us how sleepy we are). The reason we feel less sleepy when we wake up is because there’s less of that chemical in our brain.
“If you do a few minutes of exercise after that, like jumping jacks, you’re ready to go for another four hours, as you can work on that rising tide of alertness.”
This is why Harrington encourages businesses not to decry workplace naps.
“Don’t make that person feel like they’re being lazy. Recognise that they’re trying to be more productive in the long-term rather than just trying to look awake at their desks while not really doing anything.”
After about twenty minutes, your brain goes into a deeper sleep which will mean you’ll wake up feeling groggy. So make sure to keep your work naps short and sweet.
A business case for getting more Zs
In a 2015 report Why Sleep Matters – The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep, analysts estimated the financial cost of insufficient sleep in five OECD countries. In a scenario where all staff are getting less than seven hours of sleep, here were the findings (all sums in US dollars):
- Japan: $138 billion
- The UK: $50 billion
- Germany: $60 billion
- Canada: $21.4 billion
- The US: $411 billion
That’s a grand total of $680 billion. The researchers factored in things like absenteeism, presenteeism, lost productivity, hindering of skills development, decrease in efficiency and workplace deaths.
The last of these is a real concern. Lack of sleep was estimated to result in 3,017 deaths in Australia in the 2017 financial year.
Given lack of sleep is both a financial and health risk, what can organisations and individuals do to tackle it?
Harrington suggests that each person can readjust what she calls ‘the pie chart of your day’ into three chunks of eight hours: sleep, work and ‘other’.
“Often we want to (or have to) work more than eight hours, but we take that time from our sleep chunk instead of the ‘other’. We really have to change that.”
At one organisation she encouraged staff to keep a 24 hour diary of how they were spending their time. Staff recorded everything that they did and most were really surprised at how they were spending their time.
“Once people start organising their chart by looking at that meeting or long commute that they have to fit in and taking away something from the ‘other’ chart, like sitting in front of the TV for an hour, it makes all the difference,” she says.
She also suggests doing a company wide wellbeing survey to help start the conversation about sleep health with employees.
She also offers these three changes that you could implement right away:
- Discourage staff from looking at emails after 7pm and night and before 7am in the morning.
- To help with the former, don’t allow managers to send emails out of those hours because subordinates often feel pressured to respond.
- Educate staff about the benefits of sleep (and risks of not getting enough) as a way to spark their personal interest.
And if you’re looking for more personal advice on how to get better sleep habits, here are just a few of Harrington’s top tips:
- Aim for at least 7 hours each night.
- Go to bed at the same time each night.
- On the weekend, don’t sleep past an hour of your weekday wake up time.
- Don’t take daytime naps of more than 20 minutes.
- Anxiety can keep you up. So if you’re feeling anxious spend 20 minutes before bed writing down your worries (and possible solutions). Then put the list away with the knowledge that you’ll return to it in the morning.
- Set an alarm an hour before you intend to sleep. At this time: turn off all technology, dim the lights and have a warm shower to prepare your brain for sleep.
To have employee wellbeing at the centre of your business you often need expert advice. Ignition Training’s short course Mindfulness – Mental Health at Work will provide you with effective strategies for stress management and more.