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Sleeping at work is a sign of a larger problem
Everyone can relate to getting a bad night’s sleep and feeling grumpy and sluggish the next day. When we sleep poorly, it shapes both our physical and mental health— our moods, emotions, relationships, cognitive function, and work performance.
Poor sleep can become dangerous when employees are chronically exhausted, sleeping on the job, and struggling with their work. Falling asleep at work is a sign that your employee may be one of the 237 million people globally living with insomnia.
Moderate sleep deprivation is equivalent to the cognitive impairment of being legally drunk, potentially leading to safety issues in the workplace. It also leads to mental health challenges, which makes sleep awareness an important set of related issues for HR leaders and supervisors to understand.
How sleep is connected to mental health
Sleep and mental health are deeply intertwined. Failing to get the recommended amount of sleep a night can worsen our mental health, while mental health challenges can keep us from sleeping.
Getting enough sleep, especially REM sleep, promotes the brain’s processing of emotional information, memory consolidation, and learning, while filtering out toxins in the brain that build up over the course of a day.
A lack of adequate sleep on a regular basis can cause mental health issues, including:
- Difficulty focusing
- Confusion and distraction
- Chronic stress
- Memory loss
There are also long-term health risks associated with a lack of sleep, such as:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
Sleep affects almost every single system and type of tissue in the body. Its importance cannot be overstated.
Sleep is deeply important for workplace safety
Statistically, almost every company has employees dealing with sleep struggles at any given time. It’s estimated that fatigue costs employers about $136 billion a year in health-related lost productivity. Employees are spending a lot of time exhausted on the job, which is concerning for the health and safety of everyone in the workplace.
A lack of sleep also inhibits emotional regulation—control over our emotional state—how we react to our feelings, and what actions we take based on those feelings.
An employee who comes to work without sufficient sleep may have a tendency to get frustrated more easily, snap at coworkers, and find it difficult to focus and think deeply about their work.
Essentially, they will have a harder time safely dealing with the everyday problems an individual has to navigate throughout the workday.
When work interferes with sleep
The amount of sleep people need is unique to each individual’s body and mind. Most of us know that research indicates we need 7-9 hours of sleep per day to function well.
But of course, the reality is that getting enough sleep can be really difficult when you’re working 8-5, while also raising kids or dealing with other caregiving responsibilities—not to mention having hobbies or a social life.
For many employees, work-related issues directly impact how much sleep they are getting at night. For instance:
- Long work hours
- Shift work sleep disorder
- Work-related stress
- Artificial light, which affects sleep rhythms
- Poor work-life balance—checking work email and texts at night, unable to stop ruminating and worrying about work
I have a lot of therapy clients who tell me that work feels overwhelming, they have bad dreams about work, and they can’t fall asleep because they’re so worried about work.
Employees can’t be their best selves in either their personal lives or at work when their mental health and sleep are affected in this way. So what can workplace leaders do to help employees sleep better?
How HR leaders can support good sleep
There are both policy and individual-level remedies for helping employees disconnect in their off time and get better sleep, including:
- Flexible schedules
- Promoting work-life boundaries—encouraging employees to put work email away after work and leave work at work
- Being open to feedback from employees about overwork and how much work they’re taking home, or doing on evenings and weekends
- Pointing employees toward therapy or coaching for sleep issues, especially as part of a comprehensive EAP
- Educating employees about sleep hygiene and the importance of good sleep
Let’s explore some ways to navigate employee exhaustion at work in more detail.
Caring about employee sleep is part of good leadership
It might seem strange to consider a workplace dynamic where a supervisor or HR leader is discussing sleep hygiene with an employee or their team.
But this is part of being connected with employees, and building relationships with them that entail concern about their wellbeing. It means being approachable and open to an employee wanting to talk about struggles in their life, and/or noticing if someone is falling asleep at their desk or sleeping in their car during breaks.
This might include asking an open-ended question, without making assumptions. For example: “I’ve noticed you’ve looked tired this week and were sleeping in your car during lunch. Is everything okay?” This gives the employee an opportunity to talk about what’s going on, without feeling judgment.
Why sleep hygiene education is important
Sleep hygiene simply means good sleep habits. We may be vaguely aware that we need to go to bed earlier or that lots of screen time at night is bad for us, but good sleep habits extend to actions taken throughout the day.
There’s no magic cure for insomnia, and for chronic cases, medical intervention may be needed. But all of us can add (or remove) some relatively simple things to our daily routine to help us get a good night of sleep, such as:
- Establishing a sleep ritual or routine and sticking to it: same bedtime every night, no screens an hour before sleep. This will look different for everyone, but as an example: brush teeth at nine pm, read for twenty minutes, listen to a five minute meditation, and then lights out.
- Leaving work at work. If people are struggling with this, especially fully remote or hybrid employees, encourage them to create a ritual after work to mark that it’s no longer work time, and be diligent about letting those thoughts go.
- Exercising or any type of physical activity (but not too close to bedtime).
- Meditation and mindfulness practices, such as progressive muscle relaxation.
- Cutting caffeine out in the second half of the day.
For my clients who are struggling with sleep, I suggest incorporating a gratitude practice before bed. At the end of each day, write down one or two things that you’re thankful for or a couple of positive things that happened throughout the day.
Writing down thoughts is a great way to externalize them, getting them out of the mind and allowing relaxation and sleep.
How therapy and coaching can bolster sleep
Therapists and coaches can provide several different forms of support for employees who are struggling with sleep. For example, I offer my clients:
- Education about the importance of sleep and sleep hygiene
- Evaluation: sometimes it takes a professional evaluation for an individual to fully understand the issue they’re struggling with
- Skills for relaxation, coping with stress, and development of a sleep practice or routine
- Connection with community networks that offer support around specific issues, such as insomnia
- Diagnosis of mental health issues that may be inhibiting sleep
- Referral to a medical professional if needed
Better sleep, better workplaces
If you take one thing away from this blog, I hope it’s that workplace stress can have a huge impact on sleep.
Sleep is deeply fundamental to both mental and physical wellbeing, and the workday is one of the biggest factors determining how well employees are able to sleep at night.
A company filled with employees who know the importance of good sleep and sleep hygiene, with supervisors and HR leaders ensuring that employees' work-life balance is respected, creates a healthier culture for employees and one where more gets done.
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