Monday 16 March 2020 4:55 am

The sleep conundrum: The UK's other health crisis

Steve Peralta is co-founder and chief content officer of Unmind.

The UK population is facing a new sort of crisis — and no, this is not Covid-19, but the sleep conundrum. With two thirds of the UK working population struggling with poor sleep, research from Rand reveals that UK employers are losing up to £40bn and over 200,000 working days per year. 

While this is no contagious virus, it is problematic — and often ignored. 

Over the years, a skewed narrative around leadership success has emerged, where thriving leaders are defined by the number of hours they put in. Elon Musk, Tim Cook and Michelle Obama have all been outspoken about their sleeping habits (or the lack thereof), perpetuating the idea that little sleep leads to success.

Such biased understanding undermines the reality of the problem, and the solution is often misunderstood. While getting more hours will of course help, the focus should be on the quality of sleep. It is poor sleep that compromises success.

According to the Royal Society of Sleep, restless sleep can lead to a decrease in cognitive capabilities: short-term memory loss, a lack of creative and divergent thinking, and lethargic feelings. With three out of four UK employees saying that they feel lethargic at work following a night of poor sleep, and 68 per cent believing that it affects their ability to complete tasks, the effects are countless, and the health consequences can be dire for wellbeing and productivity. 

As a wellbeing coach who struggled with and overcame 10 years of insomnia, I know first-hand the impact that poor sleep can have on productivity. And I know it’s something that companies can act on to help their employees. But for that, we need a systemic overhaul of how organisations and employees speak of sleep.  

According to Jason Ellis, Unmind’s resident sleep expert and professor of sleep science at Northumbria University, organisations “need to create a culture shift away from seeing sleep as a tradable commodity”. We should no longer be congratulating the people who slept two hours to get their work done, but encouraging employees to have a healthy attitude towards sleep.

Companies can incorporate practical measures, including offering flexible working hours to suit employee’s chronotype (the internal clock that tells your optimum sleep time and dictates whether you are a morning or a night person) and redesigning shift-work rotations.

We should also encourage setting a “curfew” time for emails, to ensure that staff can switch off after working hours. Organisations that have created sleep wellness packages and offered bespoke support to employees with sleeping difficulties are those which have seen an increase in productivity.

Educating employees on sleep is critical. Organisations can raise awareness on the importance of being well-rested, and how good sleep is the foundation for wellbeing and productivity. 

Technology can play an important role in making this kind of education and support easily accessible. The rise of digital platforms is helping us learn, track and proactively improve the quality of our sleep, which we know benefits both our physical and mental health. Sleep tools and programmes have become two of the most popular resources on our platform, helping employees understand and take measures to improve their sleeping habits.

Undoubtedly, better sleep leads to an engaged workforce. Companies which understand that poor sleep equates to poor performance and address it will see tremendous results in terms of staff retention, work performance, and productivity output. 

While there’s more that organisations can do to raise awareness on the issue, business leaders must find new measures to ensure that the problem with sleeping — or the lack thereof — doesn’t turn into an epidemic.

Main image credit: Getty

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