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5 Things You Should Know About Sleep Health in the Workplace

05/23/2013 08:19 am ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013
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We've known for some time that sleep deprivation is associated with decreased productivity and a lack of focus, but that's not the end of the story: Insufficient sleep is also linked with less innovation, lower job satisfaction and unethical behavior in the workplace.

At last week's Corporate Sleep Health Summit, hosted by Harvard Medical School, some of the country's top sleep researchers and corporate leaders came together to discuss the latest research on the damaging impacts of sleep deprivation on American workers and corporate bottom-line objectives. But more importantly, the discussions raised important questions about how we can create a movement to improve sleep health. How can we make sleeping four hours a night go the way of the two-martini business lunch or smoking in the boardroom? The summit aimed to offer solutions to the sleep-deprivation crisis that's harming our health and our businesses.

Inspired by this week's discussion at Harvard, here are five things that everyone should know about sleep health in the workplace.

1. Sleep Affects Not Just Productivity, But Innovation.

The conversation around sleep health in the workplace tends to focus on how a lack of sleep takes a toll on productivity -- but the effects of prolonged wakefulness on innovative thinking may be just as damaging to corporate objectives. Lack of sleep affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area that controls innovation, self-control and creativity. A 1999 study found that just 24 hours of sleep loss impairs innovative thinking and flexible decision-making. And despite the fact that many entrepreneurs boast sleeping five or fewer hours per night, sleep deprivation could actually be hurting companies that rely on employees' creative and out-of-the-box thinking skills.

2. Sleep Deprivation And Stress Are A Vicious Cycle.

Two-thirds of Americans report that getting too little sleep was a major source of stress for them in the past month, according to a recent HuffPost survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults. And the effects of both stress and sleep deprivation could be seeping into their work lives.

"In the sleep world, stress is to sleep as yin is to yang -- opposite forces that are forever linked," Chris Winter, M.D. told The Huffington Post in April. "Stress prevents sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and its consequences."

So our work lives are causing us to become stressed (eight in 10 Americans are stressed about their jobs), and in turn, we are less able to get our work done because we're not getting enough sleep. One study found that 24 hours of sleep deprivation can significantly raise stress hormone levels.

3. 24/7 Jobs Are Taking A Big Toll On Sleep Health.

Changing work cultures and constant connection to smartphones and digital devices is wreaking havoc with many Americans' sleep patterns. The cost of more flexible work schedules is that many of us find that we never really turn off, responding to emails past midnight and working through weekends and vacations. According to new sleep survey data presented at the Summit, 72 percent of American workers polled said that they sleep with their smartphones next to their beds in the on position, and 45 percent send emails and texts often or always right before they fall asleep at night.

Part of the problem, Christopher Barnes, Ph.D., assistant professor at Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business, conjectured in his presentation, is that managers are modeling this behavior and rewarding their employees for responding to an email sent at 3 a.m.

"As a result of us being so connected, we're not only having a negative effect on ourselves, but we're having a profound effect on those with whom we work," said Leslie Perlow, Harvard Business School professor and author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone, in a 2012 Harvard Business Review webinar.

4. Not All Naps Are Created Equal.

Napping can go far in improving work performance, in addition to providing a number of other health benefits. To maximize nap times, limit your shuteye time to 30 minutes, as longer ones can lead to drowsiness and potentially disrupt nighttime sleep. Time your nap between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. to match the low point of the body's circadian cycle: You'll have the best chance of falling asleep during the few hours after lunch, and it could increase your performance (and maybe even learning capacity) for the rest of the day.

5. Corporate Wellness Programs Need To Address Sleep And Stress.

Nearly 90 percent of companies offer wellness incentives for employes, according to a survey from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. Most of these programs, however, focus on promoting good dietary and exercise habits, while fewer address stress and sleep health. And only 6 percent of offices had napping rooms for employees in 2011, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey of 600 companies, Everyday Health reported.

Promoting healthy sleep habits through sleep disorder screening and employee wellness programs, offering nap rooms, and encouraging employees to unplug more during evenings, weekends and vacations can be a starting-point for tackling the culture of sleep deprivation in corporate America. But the first step is awareness and changing our equation of sleep-deprivation and success.

For more by Carolyn Gregoire, click here.

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