Feeling sleepy? If you’re like most people, the answer is yes. And that should be troubling employers and HR professionals. Insufficient sleep is a significant problem, according to Professor Drew Dawson, director of the Appleton Institute at CQ University. “If you believe eight hours are necessary, 60 to 70 per cent of people are not getting that, so there are a lot of people who are not getting enough sleep.”
Australian sleeping disorders figures
In 2011, Deloitte Access Economics estimated sleep disorders were costing the Australian economy more than $5.1 billion annually in health care and indirect costs. Of the $4.3 billion in indirect costs, $3.1 billion related to lost productivity, with a further $517 million related to indirect costs associated with workplace accidents.
Lost productivity and poor mental health
Insufficient sleep has a big impact on employee health, safety and productivity, explains Professor Shantha Rajaratnam, deputy head of Monash University’s Psychological Sciences School and immediate past president of the Australasian Sleep Association. “It is associated with a number of health conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health issues such as anxiety disorders and stress, and these have an impact on workplace performance,” he says. While working at Harvard University, Rajaratnam completed a study among US police officers that found those with sleep disorders faced significantly increased health risks. “The study showed work performance such as serious administrative errors, anger towards suspects and falling asleep while driving were adversely affected,” he notes.
Reviewing the culture and policies
The 2012 Sealy Sleep Census, undertaken in conjunction with CQ University, highlighted this attitude. It found management executives perceived less sleep was necessary to work safely than employees in other occupations. Care needs to be taken that this attitude is not reflected in an organisation’s approach to limits on continual overtime shifts and night rosters. “Shift work has been independently associated with many poor health outcomes and it compounds the problem for those with poor sleep patterns. In organisations employing shift workers, we recommend sleep-disorder screening due to the productivity and safety impacts,” says Rajaratnam.
Improving health and productivity
Sleep experts believe HR can play an important role in this area and should use the close links between sleep and mental health to improve employee wellbeing and productivity. “The recent trend is to recognise the increased rate of stress and anxiety in workplaces and sleep may be an important mechanism to target for intervention,” Rajaratnam explains. Educational programs about fatigue management and the promotion of good sleep habits can help employees improve the quality of their sleep and also assist with mental health initiatives. Given the significant impact of sleep disorders on performance, regular screening programs to identify those at risk of problems such as sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy can be worthwhile.