Sleep, productivity & the future of the economy – Dr Jonathan Bloomfield

jonathan bloomfield

Over the last few months my articles have focused on encouraging readers to review their current sleep habits and ensure that the fundamental biological requirements of daily recovery are taken seriously. I am passionate about sleep’s role as one of the key pillars of health and wellbeing – and I hope you now are, too.

We have to be realistic and acknowledge that we won’t always get things right. Yet, that should not prevent us all from working hard to maintain our sleep routine. In modern society, all too many of us suffer from a mounting lack of sleep, which can impact on our job performance, daily interactions and overall quality of life.

This is a very real concern for employers because poor sleep patterns can result in much lower productivity from fatigued and distracted workers.

In 2016, a RAND study highlighted the costs of insufficient sleep across 5 major economies (Canada, USA, UK, Germany, Japan). The US (where insufficient sleep has been declared a public health problem) had an enormous $411billion impact (2.28% GDP) with the UK having a $50billion/£40billion (1.86% GDP) economic loss through staff absenteeism and presenteeism linked to insufficient sleep and resulting in a loss of 200,000 working days per year.

Be wary of technology

We often read about how new software and digital technologies are helping to make the world a smaller place and how it is helping to speed things up or enhance productivity in business. While it is true that people are more connected than ever before, this “always on” and “always accessible” culture can actually work in reverse. Staff working into the night on their laptops or answering emails on their phones at all hours can serve to increase fatigue and consequently reduce productivity during their structured working hours.

We are all guilty to some extent of indulging in technology. In fact, it is estimated that the average user now interacts with their smartphone 76 times per day. But it is worth noting that this can not only cause fatigue but also shorten attention span. According to research, the human attention span was recently reported to be at 8 seconds, a reduction from 12 seconds fifteen years ago. That brings humans beneath goldfish, which are thought to have an attention span of 9 seconds.

Bedtime tips

Ignore the bravado

Attitudes towards sleep are not helped by the fact that many of the most powerful political and business leaders are vocal advocates of sleep restriction. All too often we hear public figures brag about their short sleep regimes as a badge of honour and a demonstration of their superpowers. Similarly, we have all heard terms such as, “When you snooze, you lose” and “Money never sleeps”.

We then absorb these messages and associate it with a culture of success and high performance. Showing signs of tiredness is equated to showing signs of weakness but, in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Commuting and work flexibility

A Vitality Health study earlier in 2017 involving 34,000 workers across the UK revealed that commutes of less than half an hour each day gained an additional seven days’ worth of productive time each year compared to those with commutes of 60 minutes or more. Unsurprisingly, long commuters were also 46% more likely to get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night and 21% more likely to be obese.

With these statistics in mind, it would seem that there are many benefits to both working close to home and also working flexibly. Indeed, the Vitality survey also showed that flexible working resulted in an extra 5 productive days per year and people were less likely to have insufficient sleep.

Fatigue and safety in the workplace

The Health & Safety Executive states that worker fatigue has been implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads and is said to cost the UK £115 – £240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone. In practice, sleep deprived humans have slower reactions, reduced coordination, reduced ability to process information, memory lapses, absent-mindedness, decreased awareness, lack of attention and an underestimation of risk. It’s also recognised that levels of fatigue can be equivalent to the cognitive impairment experienced through alcohol intoxication.

Positive change

Interestingly, a few forward thinking organisations, such as Google, Facebook and Nike, now provide staff with sleep pods and allow for strategic 20 minute afternoon naps as they boost mood, alertness and productivity, and particularly creative thinking.

Of course, the culture of the business needs to be very accepting of these practices and staff need to be educated. Some modern offices now also provide quiet spaces for mindfulness, meditation or prayer which can also help recharge the stress batteries where others, such as P&G, alter the brightness of the lighting inside their buildings across the day to help adjust alertness and promote sleep onset later that evening.

In France, a law was passed in January 2017 that gave workers the right to disconnect from work emails when out of hours. Some other organisations have started to proactively create email policies and also block their servers between the hours of 6pm and 8am so all email traffic gets halted or sends an automatic out-of-office reply to explain that emails will only be dealt with during office hours. However, this strategy will only suit certain sectors or departments and may indeed cause more stress on occasions as urgent tasks could be left incomplete or people may need to deal with a great surge of emails to begin every day.

How to find a sensible Work–Sleep balance

Here are a few steps you can take to find a healthy balance:

Individuals’ responsibility: Set consistent wake-up times; limit the use of electronic items before bedtime; and exercise.

Employers’ responsibility: Recognise the importance of sleep and the employer’s role in its promotion; design and build brighter workspaces; combat workplace psychosocial risks; and discourage the extended use of electronic devices.

Public authorities’ responsibility: Support health professionals in providing sleep-related help; encourage employers to pay attention to sleep issues.