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Why businesses should care how well their employees sleep

New research suggests stress messes with our sleep.

Image: sleeping at work image via Shutterstock

EMPLOYERS NEED TO talk to their employees about sleep — and not just when they catch them snoozing on the job.

There’s a ton of research suggesting adults are having problems sleeping because of work-related stress. New data suggests that while we might technically be in bed for the recommended seven to nine hours, thinking about our mistakes on that last project report might mean we’re only actually resting for five [1]. If employers want to improve their employees’ health, and thereby their productivity, they need to focus not just on sleep quantity but also sleep quality.

What’s the deal?

There’s reason to believe Americans spend a lot of time tossing and turning, trying to put the stress of the day behind them and drift off to dreamland. The American Time Use Survey indicates the average American spends almost nine hours sleeping every night. But according to recent sleep polls, Americans say they only sleep about seven hours per night. So where are those missing two hours? It’s possible that while Americans spend nine hours in bed, only seven of those are spent actually sleeping or achieving a good rest as opposed to hitting the snooze button over and over.

While the demons that keep us awake at night obviously differ for everyone, job stress is among the most common. A growing body of research suggests the inability to stop worrying about work during our free time may contribute to problems sleeping, and studies have found that the more we feel stressed and overwhelmed at work, the more likely we are to experience disturbed sleep [2] [3] [4]. Recent studies also suggest people’s sleep quality improves significantly around retirement, and researchers attribute this change to a decrease in work-related stress [5] [6].

Why it matters

This trend extends far beyond a few frazzled workers who sleep with their smartphones glued to their faces. A series of National Sleep Foundation polls suggests that more than half of American adults experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week. Those symptoms include waking up not feeling refreshed, waking often during the night, and waking too early and not being able to fall back asleep.

Health experts generally counsel employers to figure out ways to manage chronic sleep deprivation (see psychologist Laurence Stybel’s recent piece on PsychologyToday.com for an example). But what these leaders really need to focus on is sleep quality over sleep duration, and specifically the ability to separate the office from the bedroom. In the end, companies as well as individuals will benefit, since research has shown that problems sleeping contribute to poor (and even unethical) performance on the job [7] [8]. And even though employers aren’t doctors, they may actually be in the best position to help employees deal with work-related stress, since they’re actually familiar with the work environment. Maybe that means implementing company-wide sleep management programs, or even meeting individually with employees to discuss their bedtime routines.

With any luck, by the time next year’s ATUS rolls around, we’ll be able to say with confidence that we spend that whole nine hours snoozing. And maybe we’ll stop having that dream about showing up to work naked. Just me?

- Shana Lebowitz

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