Tuesday 5 November 2019 6:19 am

Boardrooms are snoozing on the UK's sleep crisis

Britain’s productivity has long been the bane of the economy. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that UK output has declined year-on-year since 2014 and lags behind the rest of Europe. 

Clearly, there’s no silver-bullet solution to turning the tide – it will take a mix of tried-and-tested measures, like application of technology and skills training, as well as new ideas. 

But there’s one important factor that has so far been ignored: sleep.

Despite sleep being increasingly recognised as an important part of our health, wellbeing and ability to function, it is rarely considered in the context of work. In fact, we know that as many as three in four employees in the UK suffer from persistently poor sleep. More worryingly, half of Britain’s workforce say that they are unable to stay awake during the day. 


We also know that, on average, people take two sick days a year to catch up on sleep. It appears to be a vicious cycle, with work-related stress being one of the biggest drivers of bad sleep.

Put simply, Britain’s poor sleep is exacerbating our productivity problems. 

The notion that sleep has a fundamental effect on economies isn’t an entirely new one. In 2016, following analysis of 62,000 people in five major economies, Rand Europe proved that the cost of tired employees amounted to almost two per cent of GDP.

Beyond the productivity uplift, better sleep health can support other areas that are a priority for all businesses: talent attraction, employee loyalty, and company culture. In fact, our research shows that as many as half of working millennials state that they would feel more loyal to a company if it invested in sleep support.

 So sleep represents an opportunity for businesses. But currently it is seen as a personal – not professional – issue. 

The majority of business leaders we spoke to said that sleep is the sole responsibility of the employee. And just three per cent of companies have a sleep policy in place, despite guidance from Public Health England encouraging businesses to introduce them. 

Meanwhile, employees don’t feel able to discuss their sleep problems with managers for fear of greater scrutiny or being held back in their careers. A worrying sleep stigma is rife in UK workplaces, which is exacerbating our sleep and productivity crisis.  


So what needs to change? 

First, employers need to start to see sleep health as an important part of employee wellbeing. That doesn’t just mean having a policy, but taking relatively simple steps to build sleep-supportive cultures. 

At Dreams, we are introducing sleep health training for managers, including having conversations about sleep in annual reviews and providing access to speak with an expert.

Second, we must support employees in their efforts to switch off from work. Figures from the Trades Union Congress show that we’re working more hours than ever before, but our output is in the doldrums. It’s time to make it easier for people to turn off when they are home, so they can be at their most productive when they are at work . 

Better sleep isn’t going to put the UK’s productivity problems to bed – of course not. But it does represent an opportunity to create happier, healthier, and more productive workforces. So let’s make sleep health a topic for the boardroom, not just the bedroom.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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