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Our Mental Health and the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic: Part VII

Dr Libby Artingstall & Dr Sile McDaid, Co-Founders & Directors Team Mental Health 

Sleep: A non-negotiable necessity (Part 3) 

So far in our series of blogs on sleep we have looked at why sleep is important, the factors influencing sleep, and what we as individuals can do to improve our sleep hygiene. At this present time, for workforces across our communities, particularly the NHS and other key workers, good sleep is essential. That’s why in this blog, we’re focusing on sleep and its relationship to work. We’ll consider the risks that employee sleep deprivation presents, and why it’s essential to promote good sleep at an organisational level. 

Poor sleep can have a negative impact at work in several ways, including: 

  1. Employee health and wellbeing 

In our first blog on sleep, we highlighted the physical and mental health risks associated with sleep deprivation. Reinforcing the vital importance of sleep, perhaps one of the most striking statistics we’ve seen is individuals who routinely sleep five hours a night have a 65% increased risk of dying at any moment in time, relative to those getting seven to nine hours a night”.1  

  1. Performance and Productivity 

The idea that increasing the number of hours we spend working equates to increased productivity, is a total misconception. This kind of approach is often associated with a compromise in sleep. Sleep deprivation can affect our ability to concentrate, recall information, make decisions, communicate effectively, and multi-task. All of these can negatively influence our performance at work.2 Matthew Walker (professor of neuroscience & psychology & director of the Centre for Human Sleep science at University California, Berkeley) has looked at important traits associated with productivity and how they are influenced by sleep. He describes ‘creativity, intelligence, motivation, effort, efficiency, effectiveness when working in groups, as well as emotional stability, sociability, and honesty’, being negatively impacted by poor sleep.3 Sleep deprivation leads to reduced performance, decreased productivity and is costly for organisations. 

  1. Financial 

It is estimated that poor sleep costs the UK economy in the region of £30 billion per year with 200,000 working days lost every year due to insufficient sleep.4 

No organisation or occupation is immune to the negative impacts of sleep deprivation and legislation sets out that “employers have a legal duty to manage risks from fatigue and sleep deprivation, irrespective of any of their workers’ willingness to work extra hours or preference for certain shift patterns”.5  

To meet this legal obligation, a great place to start is to address sleep within a health and wellbeing policy. Poor sleep can negatively affect our mental health, but poor sleep can also be a symptom of poor mental health. Therefore, when Team Mental Health work with organisations to develop and implement meaningful and effective mental health and wellbeing strategies, we address sleep as an integral component of this. Adopting an organisation-wide approach, with genuine ‘buy in’ from the top, reinforces to employees that their health and sleep are priority issues, and that they are valued. This encourages a positive and open culture within the organisation and helps to prevent problems from developing, something that is beneficial to both the employees and the organisation.  

It is important to note that whilst there is a responsibility on employers, employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety. Ultimately, individuals will make their own decisions about when to go to bed and how much sleep they have. However, to ensure employees can make healthy choices about sleep, rest and recuperation, it is important to provide information and educate about the importance of good sleep and risk factors within the workplace. There are many work-related risk factors that can contribute to sleep deprivation including leavism (being unable to ‘switch off’ or disconnect from work), work-related stress, poor relationships and shift-work. 

Alongside educating employees, it is essential to support managers through training. Managers should have the knowledge to recognise the signs of sleep deprivation, the skills to have conversations with employees about sleep, and the ability to appropriately signpost those in need of support. Managers should also feel confident and be able to collaborate with employees to work together to understand and manage risks in the workplace. Ways in which this might be done include:  

  • Leavisim 

This can reflect an ‘always on’ culture and it is essential that employees are supported to maintain a healthy work / life balance. Out of hours working should be discouraged (including opening and responding to emails), and utilising full annual leave entitlements should be actively encouraged. Those in senior positions can positively impact this by modelling such behaviours and ‘leading by example’. 

  • Workrelated stress 

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.6 Work related stress cannot only contribute to poor sleep but if left unaddressed, it can increase the risk of mental ill health. When it comes to understanding work-related stress, the Health and Safety Executive have identified six key areas as leading to problems if not managed well: Demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.7 In order to understand and manage stress effectively in the workplace, it is important to complete stress risk assessments, exploring each of these six areas and implementing change when required. 

  • Poor relationships at work 

As highlighted above, poor relationships at work can impact on stress levels and can also have a negative impact on our sleep. It is important that there is an organisational culture that promotes positive working relationships and encouraging simple acts of kindness among employees is a simple way to do this. Ensure that there are policies in place to communicate and address bullying and harassment and unacceptable behaviour. 

  • Shift work  

Evidence suggests that people working shifts, especially night shifts and shifts > 8 hours, are at increased risk of the effects of poor sleep. In fact, working night shifts has about a 25-30% higher risk of injury than working day shifts.5 In our next blog on sleep, we will look in more detail at the impact of shift work and provide some top tips on how to support shift workers. 

Promoting good sleep protects people and organisations. Here’s a summary of our organisational top tips to developing a good sleep culture: 

  • Address sleep as part of your organisation’s mental health and wellbeing strategy 
  • Educate all employees on the importance of sleep and work-related risks 
  • Train managers to recognise the signs of sleep deprivation  
  • Collaborate with employees and signpost to professional support if they are in need  
  • Support employees to maintain a healthy work/life balance 
  • Encourage staff to use their annual leave entitlement 
  • If work-related stress is identified, engage in risk assessment and management processes 
  • Encourage acts of kindness among employees to support positive working relationships 
  • Ensure there are policies in place to address unacceptable behaviour 

For more information on the impact of shift work and top tips to support shift workers, check out our next sleep blog.   

References 

  1. Walker, M. (2018) Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. Penguin 
  1. Royal Society for Public Health (X). Waking up to the health benefits of sleep. Available online at: https://www.rsph.org.uk/uploads/assets/uploaded/50220c8f-febb-416e-8f3f7a4d2f973897.pdf  
  1. Walker, M. (2018) How to boost your business? Let workers sleep. The guardian. Available online at: (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/26/succeed-business-sleep-profits-employees-bosses). 
  1. Rand.org. (2016) Lack of Sleep Costing UK Economy Up to £40 Billion a Year. Available online at: https://www.rand.org/news/press/2016/11/30/index1.html 
  1. Business in the Community in association with Public Health England (2018). Sleep and recovery: a toolkit for employers. Available online at: https://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/bitc_phe_sleep_recovery_toolkit-final-18.01.18.pdf 
  1. Health & Safety Executive (2019). Stress risk assessment. Health & Safety Executive (online). Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/risk-assessment.htm 
  1. Health & Safety Executive (2019). Work-related stress. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/STRESS/index.htm 

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