Sleep deprivation costs the UK economy billions of pounds a year. But by supporting sleep with sensible policies, companies can reap the rewards of a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.
The long, dishevelled queues at Costa. The carriagefuls of zombified faces. The empty expressions of passers-by. The evidence is all around us. We are gripped by an epidemic of restlessness. But its consequences are far graver than those we can see with the naked, sleep-bleared eye.
According to research institute Rand Europe, the UK’s collective sleep deficit is costing our economy a staggering £40 billion a year. For scale, that’s about what we spend on all our schools, teachers and textbooks.
How do a few weary mornings amount to such a dramatic figure?
An Epidemic of Restlessness
Simply, the problem is far bigger than most people realise. The British Sleep Council’s Bedtime Report says that as many as 70% of us are getting by with seven hours or less of shut-eye per night.
‘But seven hours isn’t so bad!’ I hear you protest. ‘My body only needs six hours. Any more and I’m more sloth than person.’
Only a small minority of people can function properly with less than seven hours of sleep. You might be one of them. Lucky you, if so! But for most of us, seven hours is what medical science considers the bare minimum. Any less drastically increases our susceptibility to a whole host of nasty ailments.
And, like a bad debt, skipped sleep accumulates over time. One study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine showed that sleeping for six hours for a few nights in a row can impair mental faculties as much as two days without any sleep at all. Key takeaway: just because you don’t feel sleepy doesn’t mean you’re getting enough rest.
That sleeping less is evidence of some desirable physiological efficiency is a common misconception. The field of somnology is plagued with many, equally damaging fallacies. Having a nightcap helps you sleep, for instance. We would all do well to educate ourselves a little better.
But misinformation isn’t the only problem. The bigger issue is that our culture doesn’t value sleep highly enough. We view it as frivolous or luxurious and see the time we set aside for it as a readily-available cache of additional time.
These attitudes have consequences. They harm our health, our productivity, and in aggregate, our economy. Sleep-deprived workers are less efficient, make more mistakes, and miss work with illness more often than their well-rested counterparts.
We have become an intellectual economy. Mind his now more valuable than matter. To think well, clearly, and in novel ways – all highly prized and well-remunerated skills – we must give our brain the sleep it needs.
Another of those damaging misconceptions about sleep is that it’s a process of rest and repair. It isn’t. Not exclusively, at least. Sleep is when memories are moved to long-term storage. It is where unconnected thoughts collide to create new ideas. It is where learnings are cemented as neurological pathways. As an ideas-based society, we must prize sleep as a precious resource on par with data, oil and rare minerals. It is a deep social failing that we don’t do this already.
What we are talking about is a major cultural rethinking. We must stop viewing sleep as a luxury, and rid ourselves of our many unfounded stigmas. Sleep is not for the week or unambitious. Caffeine is not a cure.
Businesses are not solely to blame for our warped view or the incurring of our national sleep debt. But companies can do a lot to solve both problems. Modern, pro-sleep policies will stimulate productivity. Rand Europe’s data says as much. They will also create a happier, healthier workforce.
Exactly which policies are implemented is up to each company. But here are a few, reasonably sensible suggestions.
Science says that each of us has our own individual sleep pattern or ‘chronotype’. Chronotypes are bookended by two extremes: Owls and Larks. Owls are late to bed and late to rise. Larks are early to bed but up at the crack of dawn. Most of us – around 70% – are somewhere in the middle.
Chronotypes are genetic. They are not, as many believe, the product of personal preference. Owls aren’t naturally lazy, and Larks aren’t innately ambitious. They were just born to sleep in a certain rhythm.
This subtle variety creates problems for businesses. Not all employees are at peak productivity at the same time. Rigid start and end times can squander productivity, and disrupt employees’ natural sleep patterns. But there’s a simple solution: flexible start and end times.
The fixed-hours structure dates from the Industrial Revolution, when man and machine were needed together in the same place, at the same time. Much has changed since. This model has become obsolete for many companies, particularly those in the research, academic and professional services sectors.
Giving employees the option to start or finish their days when they choose allows them to sync productive peaks with working hours. It also lets them sleep in line with their chronotype, which would reduce company fatigue and boost morale.
The Meetings Corridor
Some might worry that flexible schedules will cause scheduling and coordination problems. This hasn’t been a problem for us at GrantTree. We have a flexible working policy and there are still plenty of meetings, chats, presentations and catch-ups.
Still, if employers are worried about scheduling they could create a ‘meetings corridor’. This is simply a window of time during which employees must be available. 11 am to 3 pm, for example. If you don’t think four hours is enough time you might be having too many meetings.
It’s fine if the window isn’t observed all of the time. No one will complain if it needs to be suspended during a busy stretch, or when an important client wants a chin-wag over breakfast. Employees should be trusted to make exceptions when they need to. As with all sensible and compassionate relinquishments of power, trust is key.
Pay Employees to Sleep More
US health insurer Aetna gives cash bonuses to employees for getting a good night’s sleep. Aetna staff earn “$25 for every 20 nights in which they sleep seven hours or more, up to a limit of $300 every 12 months.”
It’s working, too. CEO Mark Bertolini observed, “69 minutes more a month of [worker] productivity on the part of us just investing in wellness and mindfulness.”
Financial incentives (AKA above-board bribery) might not be the most artful or delicate way to change behaviour. But it works. And given Given how much cultural baggage is attached to sleep, a little above-board bribery might be the most effective solution of all.
Is it worth it?
In short; probably.
To earn the full $300 (£247) employees have to sleep seven hours or more a night for 240 nights. This incentive applies throughout the week, not just Sunday to Thursday, so 240 nights equates 66% of the year. Rand Europe’s figures suggest the average British worker sacrifices around £1,200 of lost productivity each year.
So, making a few assumptions and mathematically-contentious leaps of faith, we can say that implementing Aetna’s plan would allow an employer to harvest £800 of lost productivity per employee, for just £247 of investment. And even if the employee claimed their incentive for lay-ins on every single Saturday and Sunday, they would still reclaim £646.
Does this system lend itself to abuse? Kay Mooney, Aetna’s vice-president of employee benefits says no: “We’re not worried, it’s on the honour system, we trust our staff.”
Build Nap Rooms and Nooks
Just as we have Owls and Larks, some people are naturally tuned to sleep ‘biphasically’, or twice a day. It’s not common practice in the UK, but many cultures embrace the impulse to snooze off their afternoon lull. Viva la siesta!
Allowing employees to nap during the day would allow them to get the rest their mind and bodies needed. This could be achieved by letting employees work from home, where they could have their afternoon kip in bed. Alternatively, employers could build nap-friendly nooks, rooms or even pods for their staff.
Creating opportunities for napping isn’t just good for biphasic sleepers. They are also extremely helpful for new parents who aren’t able to get enough sleep they need at home. Few incentives or rewards are more meaningful to new parents than an extra hour in the land of nod.
That more sleep equals more productivity carries the same counterintuitive logic as the four day week’s promise to improve overall employee output. But the maths is there. The money is on the table. All that’s left is to sleep on it.
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