As the nation’s ‘sleep debt’ deepens in the pandemic, the increasingly harmful effect that insomnia is having on people’s performance at work is moving up the corporate agenda
Official advice from the World Sleep Society to “reserve the bed for sleep and sex” may sound like common sense, but the rulebook has been rewritten for those who’ve been obliged to convert their bedrooms into workplaces during the Covid crisis.
From the comical video calls in pyjamas that characterised the early days of the pandemic to the practice of ‘bedmin’ – catching up on paperwork in the small hours – the combined bedroom/office is an unwelcome reality for millions.
While the enthusiasts once hailed commute-free remote working as the perfect opportunity to relearn good sleep hygiene, it’s now clear that the lack of face-to-face contact and the blurring of boundaries between people’s professional and domestic lives can be unhealthy, particularly for those who work mostly from their beds.
Talking to staff about how much sleep they’re getting is one of the last organisational taboos. For some people, it can be an intensely personal matter that relatively few managers want to broach. Yet broach it they must. Sleep deprivation already costs the UK economy upwards of £40bn a year in lost productivity. With hybrid working becoming the rule rather than the exception in many industries, this total is only likely to increase.
People who have chronic insomnia – defined as trouble falling or staying asleep at least three nights a week for three months or longer – are more vulnerable than average to obesity, depression and heart disease. Being alert to the effects of a colleague’s sleep problems – lack of focus, irritability, low mood – is one thing if you sit opposite them every day. It’s quite another to discern the warning signs when your interactions are restricted to the occasional video call.
“We felt from the start that coronavirus would cause a mental, as well as physical, pandemic,” says Jonathan Hill, head of occupational health at Anglian Water. “It isn’t surprising that anxiety, burnout and even post-traumatic stress disorder have followed in its wake, all of which have a big bearing on the quantity and quality of people’s sleep.”
Sleep talk as therapy
Anglian Water has 5,000 employees, half of whom work remotely. To break the stigma surrounding insomnia, they are encouraged to have “good conversations with their line managers” about trigger points at work or at home. They can then be directed towards a range of private healthcare services, including cognitive behavioural therapy sessions and consultations with a 24-hour virtual GP.
In common with other employers, Anglian Water offers free access to a mobile app containing sleep tools and tips. The irony of an organisation advocating the use of digital tech in the boudoir – a no-no among sleep scientists – is not lost on Hill.
At Yorkshire Building Society (YBS), too, the effects that poor sleep can have on performance, motivation and overall health are firmly on the HR team’s radar.
“We’ve been marking important awareness events such as World Sleep Day for some years now,” says Michelle Elsworth, who leads YBS’s wellbeing activities. “But, as the narrative has changed in the Covid crisis, we have redoubled our efforts to combat the anxiety levels that, colleagues say, are making themselves felt as soon as they try to sleep.”
While she believes that asking people direct questions about their sleep patterns “would be seen as intrusive” by some employees, “business leaders should foster conversations about physical and mental health in a way that encourages openness and debate, particularly now that poor sleep has become so common”.
Of all the problems reported by employees in the year to March 2021 via YBS’s mental health platform, 40% related to “feeling constantly tired”, Elsworth says.
For front-line staff in call centres and branches, the “emotional impact of having difficult conversations” – particularly with newly unemployed customers who were unable to pay their mortgages – was considerable. “Many employees found that they couldn’t shake off work at the end of the working day. This inevitably had an impact on their family time and their sleep,” she says.
To address this, YBS has instituted so-called check-in and check-out sessions between staff and managers at each end of the working day. These briefings and debriefings have proved “invaluable”, according to Elsworth.
A call away from good sleep
At Unilever, a staff survey revealing that “sleep was an area of concern” prompted the creation in early 2021 of an online portal dedicated to the topic, reports Richard Sharp, its vice-president of HR in the UK and Ireland.
“We always want to ensure that we’re putting our people first,” he says. “This has become even more important over the past year. Struggling to sleep can have such a big impact on someone’s life both inside and outside work.”
Providing information, questionnaires and access to free sleep therapy and coaching, the portal is “designed to have a lasting, positive change”. It reinforces the company’s commitment to ensuring that “no employee is ever more than one chat, one call or one click away from wellbeing support”.
Elsworth notes that it’s important to treat each case individually. “While many organisations focus on physical, mental and financial wellness, we also include social wellness,” she says. “For some people, this may well mean swapping working from home for the office at least part of the time, because they function – and sleep – better that way,” she says. “From an employer’s perspective, it’s all about reading the signals and acting upon them.”
And, with a programme of digital transformation currently in progress at YBS, it’s also about future-proofing the organisation.
Today’s employees “expect a fully rounded wellbeing package”, Elsworth says. “Although we already do a lot for colleagues, we’ll continue to ask ourselves if we can do more to support them across all areas of life – including helping them to get a good night’s sleep.”