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Sleep’s importance for mental health in the workplace

I am always wary of using stats or presuming to know something, but it is an inescapable fact that most of us spend a quarter of our lives sleeping, writes Charlie MacEwan of WPA.

For many people, good sleep is often the victim of overworking, but did you know that our work is too often the victim of bad sleep?  In today’s collaborative world, employers and employees have responsibilities and understanding good and bad sleep can have a huge impact on individual and collective productivity. 

According to sleep scientist, Dr Sophie Bostock, at a WPA webinar on ‘Sleep’s importance for mental health in the workplace’:

  • Globally, insomnia rates doubled during the pandemic.
  • Sleep deprivation costs the UK economy more than £40bn per year in lost productivity costs – or almost 2% GDP.
  • Approximately a 1/4 of the cost of all workplace accidents are attributable to employee insomnia. (wouldn’t this be tiredness – a result of their insomnia, not the insomnia itself?)

Sophie highlighted that:

  • The ‘cost’ of sleep deprivation is more than someone feeling irritable or unable to concentrate. Lack of sleep carries an opportunity cost in terms of creativity, learning and engagement at work.  Sleep loss catalyses mistakes and accidents, as well as amplifying health risks.
  • Employers can make a difference by focusing on improving education and training, their environment and culture and, where appropriate, clinical screening and support.
  • Sleep trackers and wearables, while they can have benefits, can have downsides – not least around data-sharing concerns and potentially heightening ‘good sleep’ anxiety.

“My goal today is to try and convince you that we have a large opportunity as employers to help people improve their health, wellbeing and performance through supporting their sleep,” Dr Bostock explained.

Risks and ‘costs’ of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprived workers have less empathy with customers, are less innovative and less able to accurately assess risk. In safety-critical environments, being more prone to making a mistake or causing an accident can be ‘deadly’ serious.

Lack of sleep can have wider, long-term and even potentially fatal health consequences, too. “If you think of any health condition – cancer, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, stroke – I would guarantee you there is evidence that either lack of sleep or irregular sleep patterns will amplify your risks of that condition,” Dr Bostock said.

Susceptibility to viral infection is three times higher for those who regularly get fewer than seven hours sleep a night, Dr Bostock pointed out. The risk of dementia for someone in their fifties or sixties is 30% higher for those who get fewer than six hours sleep and the risk of developing future anxiety or depression trebles for those with persistent or chronic insomnia.

Poor sleep affects all aspects of cognitive performance. In fact, sleeping for just five hours for four nights in a row can have an effect similar to being over the drink-driving limit.

Three ways employers can make a difference

Sophie highlighted three main areas where employers can make a difference:

  • Education and training – Addressing education and training first, Dr Bostock emphasised this was about employers and managers making it their business to understand how sleep works.
  • Environment and culture – This translates into action on the ground, especially addressing environmental or cultural ‘triggers’ in your organisation that may be encouraging bad sleep habits. This could include having a long-hours culture, demanding workloads or expecting ‘always on’ availability.
  • Clinical screening and support – Sleep is also a driver of wellbeing. If you help someone to improve their sleep, you can also expect improvements in mental health.

Charlie MacEwan is the Corporate Communications Director of WPA – the not-for-profit health insurer based in Taunton

Of Note

  • Looking ahead, International Sleep Week is on March 14 – 20
  • A recording of the event can be found at:
  • WPA’s Health and Wellbeing Hub is freely available to all companies, employees, family and friends and is packed with informative articles and videos to nudge us all towards better health.

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