Why sleep matters to your employees

Emma O’Connor explains how a lack of sleep is impacting on workforce wellbeing and productivity, and how employers can help their staff switch off

In our fast-paced, high-tech world, have we forgotten how to sleep? The government seems to think so. A recently leaked report shows that ministers are planning to offer guidelines on the amount of sleep people should be getting. According to reports, nearly three in four adults do not regularly get at least seven hours’ sleep per night, leading to public health concerns.  

Put simply, sleep matters. It has an impact on our physical and mental health. A lack of sleep can increase the risks of heart disease, obesity or stroke, make us susceptible to infection and impact on our ability to recover. Most worryingly, lack of sleep is also linked to shorter life expectancy. 

Sleep also affects our mood and wellbeing. Not having the daily recommended amount of sleep is not just about feeling grumpy the next day, prolonged sleep deprivation can increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lack of sleep also impacts negatively on employee productivity and performance. It can increase the chances of someone having an accident – including at work. According to the public health matters blog, sleep loss or feeling fatigued can have a profound effect on our ability to function, lead to lower engagement and poor decision-making, and reduce creativity and problem-solving skills. 

The increasing use of mobile technology and the pressure to always be online are a factor in sleep deprivation. Also, the extension of the working day into the evening, stress and taking work home are often blamed for an inability to sleep or switch off.

Eventually, this could all lead to employee ‘burnout’ – which is perhaps why the World Health Organization now classifies burnout as a workplace disease. With screen time on the rise for most people, it’s never been more important for employers to understand what they need to do to manage this issue.

But what does the law say? Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, workers are entitled to rest breaks, including 20 minutes after six hours’ work, 11 hours off in any 24-hour period and basic statutory holidays of 28 days each year (which includes bank holidays). As well as legislation, ensuring adequate rest breaks would also fall within general employer health and safety obligations. 

Failure to manage such health and safety issues effectively could result in personal injury claims, resignations and constructive unfair dismissal claims. Employers should ensure their people are taking the proper rest breaks and holidays, and that there are records kept. 

Adding training and awareness into our manager training programmes around how to spot the signs of someone who is overworking and how to manage such issues is also recommended. So too are measures employees can take to raise concerns internally – and know that these issues will be taken seriously. 

We all have different working patterns. However, if we like to send emails at 2am, we need to consider the effect that could have on the recipient. Having evening or weekend email ‘embargoes’ is one very effective way to ensure that one person is not affected by another’s working pattern.

This is not an issue that is going to go away. Sleep needs to be on every business’s wellbeing agenda to ensure managers and senior leaders understand how important it is for the mental and physical health of their people, which will lead to a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.

Emma O’Connor is head of training in the employment group at Boyes Turner