Why employers need to wake up to the importance of sleep

Louise Aston, Business in the Community Wellbeing Director examines the business case for employers to promote sufficient high-quality sleep citing the information contained in the Sleep and Recovery Toolkit published today.  


Today (18th January 2017), Business in the Community has published Sleep and recovery: a toolkit for employers, developed in association with Public Health England. This toolkit is the first of its kind for employers and joins our suite of integrated wellbeing toolkits.

We chose to focus on sleep for this toolkit because, as well as being an emerging trend, it is an integral part of wellbeing. In fact, the Sainsbury’s Living Well Index shows that better sleep is the biggest single contributor to living better and that a good night’s sleep was more valuable than a 50% salary increase. Sleep is not an optional add-on, but fundamental to both physical and mental health. Put simply; we could not survive without it. Yet there is still a stigma to discussing it due to employers fearing they are crossing the line between work and peoples’ personal lives.

There is a huge business case for promoting sufficient high-quality sleep. As well as the financial cost of lost sleep to the UK at a shocking £30bn a year, employers also have a duty on care to their employees, particularly the UK’s 3.2m night workers and the one in nine of us who work night shifts. But there is also a compelling moral case around issues such as good job design. So why is sleep so neglected?

In the Thatcher era, when the Prime Minister herself famously got by on just four hours’ sleep a night, it became a badge of honour to brag about how little sleep you were getting. Personally, I find this irresponsible and unacceptable. Firstly, there are issues around physical safety - if you’re a lorry driver or a surgeon, for instance, then sleep deprivation could potentially lead to fatalities. For those working in the knowledge economy, it could lead to misjudged or ill-informed decisions which may significantly impact on people’s lives, as well as impeding innovation and creativity.

There are also links between sleep and physical and mental issues. For example, Lloyds Bank CEO Antonio Horta-Osorio initially presented with fatigue, but the underlying cause turned out to be a manifestation of his anxiety about turning the bank around. Additionally, people suffering from chronic health conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders may suffer from severe pain caused by their condition which keeps them awake, or that a lack of sleep makes their symptoms worsen.

Ultimately, sleep is an issue that crosses the line of work and home, and whilst there is a degree of personal responsibility from employees, there is a role for employers to play in preventing sleep deprivation. This could include promoting good sleep hygiene such as the following:

  • Fixed times for going to bed and waking up
  • A relaxing bedtime routine
  • Maintaining a comfortable sleeping environment – not too hot, cold, noisy or bright
  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine late at night
  • Avoiding eating a heavy meal late at night
  • Avoiding watching television, making phone calls, eating or working in bed
  • Turning off all devices an hour before bed and keeping technology out of the bedroom
  • Avoiding using your smartphone as an alarm clock and charging your phone in a different room

Employers should also consider early intervention, such as providing training for line managers on recognising the signs of sleep deprivation, having a sensitive conversation about it with employees and signposting them to appropriate advice. These conversations may also help to identify any root causes of sleep issues, such as anxiety or depression.

We are currently in the grip of a sleep epidemic, and our 24/7 culture, not knowing when to ‘switch off’ and the blurred lines of work/life integration are all contributing to this. Employers may try setting boundaries such as turning off servers at weekends, but when it comes down to it sleep is a necessity, and people simply can’t always be available.

Ultimately sleep is something that we need to view holistically. Just as a lack of sleep may impact on existing physical or mental health conditions, it could also be a symptom of underlying problems or a cause of health issues. This toolkit is an opportunity for employers to have a productive conversation about the importance of sleep and fuel the debate around employers’ duty of care on this issue. By opening up the discussion, reframing sleep as a necessity and creating a shift in attitudes, employees will be supported to flourish and bring their whole selves to work.