Sleep and Sickness Absence

18th March 2019

We all know the importance of getting enough sleep, after all, there’s nothing better than waking up after a really good night’s sleep. You feel happier, more motivated and more productive throughout the day. However, we’re all leading busier lives, and both our physical and mental health is suffering as a result of this. On average, a person living in the UK gets between 5.78 and 6.83 hours per night and this means many of us end up missing out on the recommended amount of sleep by at least 100.6 minutes. Not only this but in a year we’re getting 210.2 hours a year (or an incredible 8.76 days).

But what affects is this having on business? According to the BBC, tiredness and exhaustion due to lack of sleep cost the UK economy £40bn a year through reduced productivity and sickness absence. That is an absurd amount and shows that the effect of sleep on sickness absence is a real problem in the UK.

What Happens If We Don’t Sleep?

According to the NHS, 1 in 3 of us suffers from poor sleep and it is stress, computers and taking work home that often gets the blame. However, the problems caused as a result of sleepless nights go way beyond feeling groggy at work. If you’re not sleeping properly on a regular basis, you’re likely to suffer from:

  • Lack of focus and motivation
  • Being more forgetful
  • Feeling constantly low
  • Tiredness
  • Higher levels of stress

Not to mention a heightened risk of:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity

But how much sleep do we actually need to combat this?

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

Research indicates that the average amount of sleep we need each night is around 8 hours in order to function properly. However, this does differ between individuals, some of us need more sleep and others of us need less. To figure out how much sleep your body needs, if you’re feeling tired throughout the day and want a nap, it’s likely that you’re not getting enough sleep. Whilst there are a variety of issues that can contribute to an individual sleeping badly, more often than not it can be attributed to bad sleeping habits.

Did you know how much sleep you need is directly related to your age? Children require anything from 9 hours sleep right through to 16 hours, you can see the full NHS guidelines here for further details. However, for most adults 8 hours should be sufficient and it’s reported that between 10 and 11 pm is considered the best time to go to bed. This is because, during this time, our bodies begin to produce less cortisol (a hormone commonly linked to stress). However it is important to remember that everyone is different, so you should find a routine that best works for you.

Risks Of Sleep Deprivation In The Workplace

We’ve discussed the various negative effects sleep deprivation can have on your health, but how about whilst you’re at work.

HGV Driver

When you’re on the roads, it’s important you’re fully alert and awake at all times. If not, you face seriously dangerous consequences. Fatigue actually has similar effects on your body as drinking alcohol. Being awake for 18 hours straight makes you drive like you have a blood alcohol level of .05 (for reference, .08 is considered drunk). If you’ve been awake for a full 24 hours and drive—say, after a night where you just couldn’t fall asleep—it’s like you have a blood alcohol level of .10 (source). If you’re driving tired, and aren’t paying sufficient attention to the road you risk your ability to make fast decisions and drive safely.

Operating Machinery

If you operate any type of vehicle or machinery whilst tired, you’re increasing the likelihood of accidents. Fatigue has also 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 (source). If you are tired and have a lack of focus on what you’re doing, you’re much more likely to get involved in an accident. Being tired at work puts both yourself and those around you at risk.

Poor Performance & Productivity

On a more general note, lack of sleep loses 200,000 working days a year in the UK. When we’re working tired, we’re not thinking or performing at our best which not only limits how fast we work but also the quality of the work we put out. Consistent lack of sleep also has a negative impact on our immune systems, meaning that we get ill more often and the result of this means even more time off work.

How Employers Can Help Prevent Sleep Deprivation

Luckily, there are lots of things employers can implement in the workplace to help address sleep deprivation in works. The first being education. The power of education and a conversation should not be underestimated. Make employees aware of the effect that lack of sleep has on their own health and their performance at work. Stress the importance of getting a good nights sleep, and if they’re struggling encourage them to outreach to a manager so that you can intervene with professional help.

You can also look at limiting out-of-hours communication, and introducing an email curfew. This will help employees to use electronic devices less outside of working hours, especially when it comes to work-related tasks. It’s reported that 71% of people sleep either holding their smartphone, having it in bed with them, or having it on their nightstand. The blue light that is emitted suppresses melatonin (a hormone that affects circadian rhythm and should increase when you are preparing for bedtime). This means that your brain feels more stimulated, therefore you struggle to sleep as a result.

Occupational Health Intervention

Sometimes, sleep deprivation goes way beyond bad habits or the occasional late night. If employees are facing serious problems, you should consider involving an occupational health advisor to look at introducing a health and wellbeing program, or for repeat absences look at sickness management to keep staff health, productive and at work.

The All Important Question…

So how do you actually get consistent good nights sleep?

  • Routine: Go to bed, and get up around the same time each day so that your body gets used to functioning consistently at these times.
  • Environment: Is your room too light, too dark? Too hot or cold? Make the environmental adjustments necessary for a comfortable sleep.
  • Disconnect: Have a digital break before bed. No phones, no TV and no laptop. Remember the good old fashioned book?
  • Avoid Caffeine Before Bed: Opt for herbal tea instead.
  • Meditation/Offload Worries: Before going to bed, take time to reflect on your day and write down and address any worries to avoid thinking through them at 2am.
  • Exercise: The benefits of exercise shouldn’t be underestimated! Boost your mood, and tire yourself out.
  • See Your GP – If you’re facing continual issues with your sleeping, you might need to arrange an appointment with your GP to get you back on track, and address any underlying health problems.

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