Chris Salmon, Operations Director of Quittance Legal Services explains what employers can do to help employees achieve better sleep, and how this can positively impact the levels of safety and productivity within an organisation.

Sustained sleep deprivation is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and mental health issues. Even over short periods, a lack of sleep can have a detrimental effect on employees and, by extension, the companies they work for.

Establishing a ‘sleep-first’ culture can have a dramatic and beneficial impact on an organisation. The following article looks at how employers can encourage a better-rested workforce.

How sleep affects performance

Concentration, memory, energy levels, motivation, coordination and the ability to assess risk are all impaired by fatigue.

Lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on the immune system. A tired employee is more likely to need time off work due to illness.

Studies have shown that well-rested employees are more productive, more creative and less prone to accidents. Clearly employers have a vested interest in the wellbeing of their employees. 

Risk of injury

Symptoms of tiredness such as slower reactions, decreased awareness, impaired coordination and a tendency to underestimate risk, all conspire to increase the risk of injury at work.

A study of HGV drivers conducted in 2016 concluded that sleep deficit increased the risk of accidents by 45%.

In 2018, 620,000 employees were injured at work in the UK, with an estimated cost to business of £15bn. With around 13% of work injuries being attributable to sleep problems, tiredness may be implicated in over 80,000 of these injuries.

Lost productivity aside, employees injured at work as a result of tiredness may have legal recourse against the company.

What can employers do?

Educating employees on the benefits of sleep can be invaluable. Online courses can help employees identify how lack of sleep may be affecting their life and work. Training can also help workers to identify and address the causes of their sleep problems.

However, businesses must also look inwards and reflect on how the demands of the job may be affecting their employee’s sleep. Employers should recognise the difference between optimal productivity and an ‘always-on’ culture that is actually harmful to the business’s interests.

Risk assessments

Employers have a legal duty of care to safeguard the health and wellbeing of employees. As with any hazard, employers should manage employee fatigue through risk assessments.

All employers must adhere to The Working Time Regulations 1998. However, compliance with the regulations alone is not enough to manage the risks of fatigue. Even in seemingly low-risk environments like an office, all employers are legally required to carry out risk assessments.

Risk assessments should consult with employees on working hours, breaks and shift patterns. The demands of the job, or a lack of support, may contribute to stress and worry. These factors may in turn affect an employee’s sleep.

Even if an employee actively requests to work longer hours, employers are not legally absolved of their responsibility to manage fatigue.

Review shifts and breaks

Poorly designed rotas, long working hours and infrequent or ill-defined breaks can exacerbate fatigue.

The risk of injury is greater amongst evening shift workers, and greater still on the night shift. Shift work may be an operational requirement for a business, but shift patterns should still be designed to minimise fatigue.

Policies should set limits on working hours, overtime and shift-swapping. Sufficient breaks whilst at work and between shifts should be factored in. Employees should be able to predict when they can take time off, and how much time they can take.

Presenteeism

Employees who feel under pressure to come into work, despite injury, illness or anxiety, are more prone to sleep loss. This culture of ‘presenteeism’ can be counterproductive.

Companies will not want to deter committed employees from putting in a few extra hours to catch up or meet a looming deadline. However, the productivity of overly ‘present’ employees will quickly suffer if they are exhausted by long hours or turning up to work when ill.

Presenteeism can be addressed through clearly-communicated company policy. Introducing paid sick days will help to discourage sick employees from coming into work.

Employees may feel pressure to ape the behaviour of their boss. If managers send emails late at night, employees will feel pressure to be responsive at all hours.

Although evenings and weekends are a useful time for senior staff to catch up on emails, email scheduling should be used to delay most emails until the following workday. Scheduling non-urgent emails will relieve recipients of the pressure to respond out of hours.

HR consultations with employees will offer insights into why employees feel they need to be ever-present.

Homeworking

The new post-COVID era of homeworking is blurring the lines between work and home life. 

Employees, worried about job security, may feel under pressure to be always available. Homeworking has made it easier than ever to succumb to this impulse.

Employers are required to carry out a risk assessment of an employee’s home workspace. This process is normally a self-assessment form completed with the help of HR.

The assessment should factor in considerations relating to sleep, such as whether the employee has a separate and designated workspace. A home office space located in the bedroom will not help a worker to ‘disconnect’ in the evenings.

Employers should encourage staff to exercise, as homeworkers will no longer be exercising on their commute. Exercise has been proven to have a beneficial effect on sleep.

Many homeworkers also feel a sense of isolation when working from home. Feelings of isolation can affect mental health and, in turn, take a toll on sleep. Companies should find ways to keep in touch with homeworking staff, on a semi-formal basis, to emulate the collegial environment of the office, and monitor employees’ mental wellbeing.

Businesses should clearly communicate expectations about homeworkers’ responsiveness outside working hours, and should take steps to ensure this policy is reflected in practice.

Promote wellbeing

Research conducted in 2013 concluded that FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10 percent.

Creating an employee wellbeing programme can greatly improve employees’ physical and mental health, leading to improved sleep.

Companies can offer corporate gym memberships and encourage exercise during lunchtime. ‘Cycle to work’ schemes incentivise cycle commuting and offer genuine tax breaks.

Businesses could offer affordable healthy food options, or even just provide free fruit. Water coolers should be available throughout the offices. Free decaf coffee and decaf tea could reduce the temptation to pop out for a (caffeinated) coffee in the afternoon.

Some firms have seen positive results by offering counselling and employee assistance programmes. Yoga and relaxation courses also offer benefits.

Multinational firms including Google and Facebook have embraced research on the benefits of supporting employees’ natural sleep rhythms. ‘Micro-napping’ during work hours is increasingly being promoted.

Working in artificial light can wreak havoc with our circadian rhythms. If possible, the working environment should be configured to maximise natural light.

In contrast, the blue light emitted by LED screens also upsets circadian rhythms, being too similar to natural daylight. To reduce exposure, consider limiting screen use in the late evening, or even block access to company emails. If calls are necessary in the evening, these could be conducted over the phone instead of by Zoom or video conference.

Consult and communicate

Whatever actions you plan to take, you should consult with employees at every stage of the process. Communicating how and why you want to promote better sleep is key to securing employee buy-in. If staff suspect that the initiative is a ploy to make them work harder, it will backfire.

By addressing the causes of poor sleep, many companies have seen marked improvements in employee health and wellbeing. These in turn have led to greater productivity and efficiency, helping to give businesses a competitive advantage.

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