Why You Should Put Your Workforce to Sleep

July 13, 2015 Darcy Jacobsen

You read that right. I think you should put your workforce to sleep. (But in the best possible way, I promise.)

And it may not be as easy as you think to get them sleeping more. I have a friend who tells me all the time he doesn’t need sleep. He is military special forces, and insists, based on years of long experience, that if you take a nap and simply adopt the right sleeping position and wake up at the right point in the sleep cycle, you can fool your body into thinking it’s had a full night’s sleep. Which he puts into effect not only on missions, but in order to fit more into his day.

Thomas Edison would have approved, according to Arianna Huffington and Atlantic Magazine.

In fact, says an Atlantic article from last year, upon invention of the incandescent lightbulb, Edison was under the impression that he had quite possibly cured sleep for good. “There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all,” they quote him as saying, in 1914.

I’m going to go right ahead and admit that this thought horrifies me. I’m kind of a sleep fiend. It’s not that I always get the right amount of sleep, but rather than if I don’t get a full 8, 9 or even 10 hours, my body acts as if I’ve been drinking all night, and I wake up bleary and sick to my stomach. So I’ve never been able to claim the sort of heroism many do by declaring their ability to survive without sleep.

Dog Sleeping with alarm clockAnd people do make those claims. According to Arianna, “lack of sleep has become a sort of virility symbol.” She’s so concerned about this problem she’s even partitioned off a corner of The Huffington Post to devote it to news and studies on sleep. We wear our burnout like a badge, she told the WorkHuman conference last month, and we need to find a better way to measure success.

According to modern science, says Arianna, Edison had it wrong, and my friend may be doing himself harm by shorting himself on sleep. In fact, if you’ve been following the studies lately coming out of academia, you know the sort of collective burnout that Arianna worries about is starting to gain critical mass. And none of that news is good.

Sleep deprivation is not good for us as individuals. It has been linked firmly to increased risk of obesity, accidents, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, depression, stroke, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) early death.

But it is also bad for our workplaces. In addition to the accidents I just mentioned—and 274,000 of them happen annually in the U.S. workplace alone, according to one study—researchers are also showing that lack of sleep is also detrimental to concentration, memory, judgment, anxiety, and decision making.

Moreover, it is tied to dissatisfaction with life—something that undoubtedly spills over into job satisfaction and turnover.

Cat sleeping face upThe risk is to the bottom line as well, not only due to mistakes, poor performance, decreased productivity, and lack of innovation, but also given the medical implications of lack of sleep and the skyrocketing costs of health care. According to a recent publication from the National Institute of Health, “Patients in the highest quartile of the Epworth Sleepiness Scale are associated with an 11 percent increase in health care utilization, and individuals with sleep-disordered breathing or sleepiness and fatigue are associated with a 10 to 20 percent increase in utilization.”

Yet, according to polls by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF):

  • The average American sleeps less than 7 hours a day (the NSF recommendation is 7-9 hours)
  • 37% of adults say they are so tired during the day that it interferes with daily activities
  • 75% of adults experience at least one symptom of a sleep disorder a few nights a week or more.

Sleep is an essential component of individual and workforce well-being, and was a recurring theme at our recent WorkHuman conference in Orlando. It affects happiness. It affects performance. It affects well-being.

And it turns out that increasing sleep can not only mitigate risk, but has beneficial effects as well: More sleep can alleviate pain and inflammation. It can increase creativity. It can increase stamina. It can help you lose weight.

Puppy Sleeping

According to a recent study in the journal SLEEP, increased sleep is also linked to resilience to trauma—something that is also mitigated by the presence of gratitude in your life—and can have profound impact on traumatic events at work—up to and including the experience of layoffs and mergers.

Okay, so by now you are probably pretty convinced that you should encourage more sleep among your employees. (And you might be adjusting your own morning alarm.) But how can you help workers actually get more shut eye? Here are a few suggestions based on recent research.

  • Help them manage their stressStress is a prime contributor to insomnia. There are several ways you can help to mitigate stress among workers. One is to increase enablement and give them clearer ways to identify and prioritize must-win battles. (Hint: social recognition is a great way to do this.) Another is to help employees build up their networks of social support in the organization. And finally, consider offering employees ways to increase their mindfulness, and establish meditation areas and/or habits in your workplace.
  • Prioritize life-work balance in your culture – “We need,” said Arianna Huffington at WorkHuman 2015, “To end the collective delusion that millions of us are living under, that burnout is the only way to succeed. And then we will begin to see that actually there is no trade off between taking care of ourselves, recharging ourselves, and doing really well at work.” Reevaluate your company’s core values—stated or implicit—and communicate to employees your commitment to their emotional and physical health. Encourage work flexibility help them to better manage their time so they are not forced to stay up late to effectively manage tasks.
  • Encourage a blackout on work communication during certain hours – Studies show that using electronics at bedtime and keeping electronics by your bed can impact sleep cycles. Smartphones have given us advances in flexibility and productivity, but studies find that answering email after 9pm can impact sleep, productivity and engagement. Consider implementing a moratorium on after-hours work emails, and encouraging employees to leave their phones off the bedside table.
  • Give them formal opportunities to regularly express gratitude – As UC Davis professor Robert Emmons shared at WorkHuman, gratitude is a key to sleeping longer and waking more refreshed. Consider implementing social recognition as a way for your employees to express their thanks and appreciation to one another. (And sleep it only the first of a host of other health and well-being benefits derived from gratitude and recognition.)

Let us know how these ideas resonate with you and these solutions work in your workplace. I won’t keep you any longer, as you probably want to go take a nap, now!


What it Really Means to Humanize Work (Tim Leberecht Guest Blog)

Witnessing the Beginning of a Movement (WorkHuman Recap)

Some of the Humans Behind WorkHuman

WorkHuman Reading List

Previous Article
Interview with Dr. Robert Emmons
Interview with Dr. Robert Emmons

Workhuman speaker Robert Emmons answers our questions on gratitude at work and its positive impact on emplo...

Next Article
What Your Company Culture Could Learn from Burning Man
What Your Company Culture Could Learn from Burning Man

The culture of Burning Man is undeniably magnetic. What makes it so, and what lessons can we draw from it f...