When Counting Sheep No Longer Works

More than half of Americans lose sleep because of work-related stress

By Dana Wilkie May 1, 2015
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You wake at 3 a.m.,rearrange your pillow, shift your position, try to fall back asleep—but instead think about the unanswered work e-mails, the overdue assignment, the temperamental boss—until dawn breaks and it’s time to stop thinking about work … so you can get to work.

If you’re like more than half of Americans, this happens quite a lot. And that means that you’re probably not as alert, accurate, decisive, energetic, speedy, even-tempered, professional or productive as if you’d had a good night’s sleep.

Eighty-five percent of U.S. workers say they lose sleep because of work-related stress, according to a March 2015 poll of 714 employees conducted by Lee Hecht Harrison, a global talent consultancy. The poll consisted of just one question: “Is work-related stress negatively impacting your sleep?” More than half of respondents—54 percent—reported that this happens to them “almost always” or “frequently.”

“Stress triggers will change over time,” said Jim Greenway, executive vice president at Lee Hecht Harrison. “No one stressed over late night e-mails during the Great Depression. Today, the perception is that jobs are more stressful, there is more uncertainty and demands are greater.”

More clear than the reasons why work is keeping people up at night is what happens to them when they don’t get enough sleep.

“Loss of sleep can lead to a downward spiral in performance at work—lost productivity, impaired decision-making, illness, frayed nerves, mistakes, absenteeism, and frustration,” Greenway said. “The cost to employers and employees in real dollars is steep, from lost revenue to lost income.”

Time to ‘Decompress’

Companies can actually do something about employees who lose sleep because of work-related stress, Greenway said. He suggested addressing the issue by encouraging workers to:

  • Be aware that they’re under stress and to identify obstacles or frustrations that are impacting their day-to-day focus and productivity.
  • Set goals to incorporate new behaviors that will allow them to have realistic expectations and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • For example, Greenway advised, managers should explain, “If you are working on a high-profile project and feel overwhelmed by the demands, you may find yourself looking for ways to procrastinate. If you are aware of the stressor and the behavior it’s driving, you can avoid the tendency to procrastinate by setting realistic expectations, saying ‘no’ to other requests, delegating more, taking breaks to keep a fresh perspective, asking for help and eliminating distractions.”
  • Set boundaries on work e-mail exchanges and phone calls—discouraging work after hours, for instance.
  • Schedule regular breaks, with electronic reminders, to encourage them to get away from their work for a quick walk, or to read a book.
  • “The important thing,” Greenway said, “is to make sure employees have adequate time to decompress—and that it is supported by managers—so they are healthy, energized and at the top of their game.”

Managing Change

Change in a workplace is a common source of stress, Greenway said. For example, during a merger, workers may discover that their job descriptions have changed, and they may feel like fish out of water.

“It’s necessary for them to realize that things are no longer what they were or how they used to be,” he said. “An employee may feel insecure or disoriented. A positive step to reduce stress is for an employee to speak with his or her manager and discuss the effect of the change on his or her role, explore options and choices available as a result of the change, and assess what new skills or competencies would be needed.”

Companies can provide training to those in leadership roles that will give them the skills to support employees who feel stressed. These skills may include the ability to communicate the organization’s vision, to build trust, to lead conversations around identifying and removing obstacles, and to set clear expectations.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM

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