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Are we sleepwalking into a sleep crisis?

Too many of us are sacrificing sleep without being aware of the nightmares it could cause in the long run

“We are conducting a wide-scale medical experiment on ourselves. Nobody knows what the result will be, but it could be devastating.”

These are not the ravings of a conspiracy theorist, but the opinion of Guy Meadows, a sleep physiologist and founder of The Sleep School. What he’s describing is the long-term effect of sleep deficiency, the result of years of missing out on just an hour or two each night.

Evidence suggests he’s right to worry. In 2003 American scientists subjected test patients to several forms of sleep deprivation. They found even relatively moderate sleep restriction, such as only sleeping six hours per night on a regular basis, can seriously impair the performance of healthy adults.

Perhaps most frighteningly, those suffering from sleep deprivation were found to be unaware of increasing cognitive deficits. They had no idea their capabilities were getting worse with every hour of lost sleep, and assumed they functioned normally.

“Sleep plays a crucial role in our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing,” explains Chris O’ Sullivan, head of business development and engagement for the Mental Health Foundation. “While we sleep our brain is not only strengthening memories but reorganising them, picking out the emotional details and helping us produce new insights and creative ideas. If we compromise on our sleep we compromise on quality of life.”

Thanks to heavy workloads and technology addictions (recent research by Deloitte found 15 million British adults are disrupting their sleep patterns by looking at mobile phones and other devices), lack of sleep is having an increasingly negative effect in the workplace. The Sleep School surveyed three FTSE 100 companies and found that 64% of employees regularly wake up feeling either ‘not very refreshed’ or ‘not at all refreshed’, and 23% feel that their poor sleep and tiredness affects their ability to do their job either ‘very much so’ or ‘a lot’. “Employees who make their sleep a priority will perform better at work and it is something that can be improved relatively simply with the right know-how and departmental analysis,” adds Meadows.

In some industries, such as aviation, the relationship between sleep and performance has been understood for decades. At British Airways sleep is a critical part of the wellbeing strategy. “We recognise that getting the right amount of good-quality sleep is important to the wellbeing of our colleagues,” says Lisa Ward, British Airways’ engagement and wellbeing manager. “We have 40,000 employees, many of whom are shift workers, and we ensure they have access to information and support on matters relating to sleep.”

As part of its programme, BA allows its staff to communicate directly with sleep experts. “In addition to publishing easily-accessible videos and information sheets on sleep, we held a live internet Q&A session with one of our sleep experts,” Ward explains. “Colleagues could raise any concerns and have them directly addressed by a healthcare professional. We ensure that managers and wellbeing advisers are equipped with the relevant information and referral points if one of their team seeks help on sleep or another wellbeing-related issue.”

But it’s not just safety-critical industries that have started to understand the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Justin Jones, national physiology manager at Nuffield Health, agrees face-to-face discussions about sleep can make a big difference. “There are a lot of different reasons somebody may be experiencing sleep deficiency,” he says. “Just telling someone to have a hot bath before bed and not to drink as much caffeine will not work in every case.”

Nuffield offers health checks to its employees, which include a meeting with a doctor. “If you have someone they can talk to personally, they can find a solution that fits their lifestyle,” Jones says. “Some of our nurses do shift work at night, and some of our personal trainers get up very early. When they can talk about their specific situation the suggestions will be realistic and achievable for that person.”

While Jones’ workforce involves shift workers, other industries can be so full-on sleep can suffer. At creative agency RKCR/Y&R HR director Louise Ablewhite admits big projects can keep people in the office “until one or two am”, the night before a client meeting for example. This means a focus on sleep has become critical, and RKCR/Y&R has been working with Meadows as part of a stress reduction programme. It also offers staff access to a sleep tracking app.

“Life is now 24/7, with people taking their phones home and checking emails at night,” Ablewhite says. “We needed people to know it is OK to switch off.” Attending Meadows’ workshops has indeed helped Ablewhite change her habits: “When I’m stressed I know how to calm down; to take a warm bath, turn my screens off.”

Other companies have gone as far as to introduce areas where employees can snatch 40 winks in the office. Google has sleeping pods while software company Capital One Labs’ offices includes sleeping nooks, accessible by ladders, for some private shut-eye.

Technology start-up BrightHR also allows its staff to sleep at work. Co-founder and CMO Paul Harris explains that the office is designed to heighten creativity and productivity, which includes allowing rest. “From day one we wanted our office to be a really engaging place,” he says. “Introducing a bed seemed like a good next step to make the team feel relaxed and take some time out away from their desks.”

Brand marketing manager Simon Dalley used the bed when he was losing sleep due to his child needing hospital treatment. “I found it restful to close my eyes, clear my mind, and get away from my hectic desk for a little while,” he says.

However, Harris warns that not everybody will like sleeping on the clock. “Some people feel it is more professional to power through, as opposed to taking a power nap,” he says. “It is important to educate on the power of sleep and its positive effect on productivity.”

“Companies are still neglecting sleep, but they are taking steps towards it,” adds Ablewhite. “It’s not all about offering smoothies and yoga; companies need to be aware of what stress can do.”

Meadows believes the next step for corporate wellbeing strategies is to include a focus on sleep. “We’ve had the physical health revolution, and then we had the mental health revolution,” he says. “Now it’s time for the sleep revolution.”