Mobile Gadgets, Longer Hours Worsening Sleep

Education, screening and behavioral modification—even 'nap pods'—can help

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Nov 11, 2015
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Lack of sleep hasn’t gotten as much attention as other well-known employee health-risk factors, such as insufficient exercise, poor nutrition and high levels of stress. But sleep deprivation results in poorer health and lower productivity, and the problem appears to be getting worse, according to an October 2015 report by MAXIS Global Benefits Network, a partnership between insurance providers MetLife, in New York City, and AXA France Vie, in Paris.

The report, Sleep: A Business Case for Bedtime, notes that corporate culture often confuses long hours on the job with high performance. But lack of sleep—typically, less than six hours nightly—significantly impacts workers’ cognitive abilities and overall health.

Researchers at Cornell University’s Institute for Health and Productivity Studies analyzed medical claims from 138,820 workers younger than 65 who were covered by self-insured, employer-sponsored health insurance plans. They found that both medical and indirect costs (such as those related to missed work, or lack of concentration while at work) were about $1,253 higher per individual for workers who had insufficient sleep than for those who got enough sleep.

Smartphones and tablets may be making the problem worse on two fronts:

  • They make it easier—and often expected—for employees to stay wrapped up in workplace issues late into the evening.
  • “They emit blue light that the eyes confuse with daylight, lowering the presence of sleep-inducing melatonin in the brain,” Dr. Lena Johns, MetLife’s global medical and wellness director, said in an interview with SHRM Online.

“Most of the time, employees don’t know how this is harming them,” Johns explained, “because when they look at their Facebook or their messages, they get a kick of dopamine, which is very addictive. But these blue-light devices also stop melatonin from being produced. You want to educate your employees that this is what’s happening and, as a consequence, they will struggle to sleep or won’t reach a deep level of sleep and will be fatigued the next day.”

What Employers Can Do

As an example of efforts employers can make to address sleep deprivation, Johns noted that French car manufacturer Renault provides sleeping pods and encourages employees who feel fatigued to take a 20-minute power nap between 1 p.m. and 3.p.m., “which it feels is the ideal time. Even if [employees] don’t sleep, just going in there and powering down lets people unwind and relax.”

Another example: Dutch-based Shell Oil has a fatigue risk-management program, Johns said. “This system looks at staffing levels and workloads to forecast if employees have enough time to sleep each night. And that information is factored into crew policies and shift-work overtime policies,” she noted.

Johns also recommended focusing on the following areas:

  • Education and awareness. Education can be provided by holding seminars with sleep-deprivation experts, sharing relevant online articles with tips on improving sleep, incorporating getting sufficient sleep into wellness program goals and making managers sensitive to issues relating to sleep-deprived workers.
  • Prevention and screening. Encourage managers to make schedules more predictable, or promote telecommuting. Health assessments can screen workers for sleep disorders. For employees who volunteer to take part in sleep-screening efforts, wearable devices can report back on how much sleep they’ve had, Johns said. “This [data collection] allows for individual assessments so individuals can determine what’s causing their sleep loss and provides for personalized interventions.” (For more on wearable devices, see the box below.)
  • Behavior modification. “Employers can help employees to change some of their habits, like late-night logging into computers and looking at Facebook or Twitter just before they go to sleep,” Johns said.

Addressing Shift Issues

Late-night shift workers are more prone to getting sick. “There’s a disruption of their circadian rhythm, which is the natural time clock,” Johns said. “People who work in shifts have poorer immunity and are 2.9 times more likely to get colds and infections. There’s higher risk of hypertension and stroke.”

When night workers finish their shifts, it’s often daytime, “so they could use something to block the sunlight from entering their eyes,” Johns said, such as by wearing a blue-light blocking sunshade that looks like amber-colored sunglasses. By reducing exposure to daylight, night-shift workers are more likely to be able to sleep, and sleep soundly, once they’re home in bed.

Education can be targeted directly to the shift workers about when they should go to sleep in the morning, when they should wake up prior to their shift and what kind of light they should have during their night shift.

“It’s time to draw attention to this,” Johns said.

Wearable Tech Provides Sleep Insights

If high-tech gadgetry such as smartphones and tablets are contributing to workers’ sleep deprivation, wearable health-monitoring devices can empower people to adjust their routines in order to get sufficient rest.

“Many fitness trackers can now track both daytime body movement and sleep, allowing you to get a better picture of how much sleep you’re actually getting,” Dr. Joseph M. Mercola, an alternative medicine proponent and osteopathic physician, wrote earlier this year on his personal health website. “If you go to bed at 10 p.m. and get out of bed at 7 a.m., you might say you’ve slept for nine hours. In reality, you probably spent at least 15-30 minutes falling asleep and may have woken during the night once or more.”

With the advent of fitness-tracking wristbands, “we now have access to actual sleep data from wristband users,” which can be “quite useful on a personal level,” Mercola noted.

Stephen Miller
, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow me on Twitter.

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