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Sleeping on the job

09 April 2019. Published by Katie Fry-Paul, Trainee Solicitor

Given an increasing interest in wellness, sleep is a hot topic for both individuals and businesses. With sleep-related productivity issues estimated as costing the UK economy up to £40 billion, this article takes a look at the impact that sleep has on businesses – as well as the opportunities that it presents.

Most of us will be familiar with the feeling that we are not firing on all cylinders after a sleepless night.  According to the NHS, most adults need around eight hours of 'good-quality' sleep a night, and although it depends on the person, it deems that less than seven hours sleep is insufficient.  Whilst scrimping on shut-eye for one night will not have lasting effects, aside perhaps from short-term performance problems, prolonged periods of poor sleep may impact on health, making one more prone to serious health conditions such as "obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes". 

Sleeplessness does not have to be chronic to have an impact on business - in a 2017 week-long study, the cumulative effects of sleeping for five hours a night, versus the target eight hours, were examined in relation to decision making.  The groups had decision-making tasks to complete, with two choices: receiving a fixed amount of money, or gambling for a higher amount on an all-or-nothing basis.  At the beginning of the week the groups made similar choices. However, as the week progressed, an increasing number of the five-hour group took the greater risk.  This group were also found to be unaware that they were taking greater risks.  So perhaps holding important decision-making meetings on a Friday afternoon really could be a bad idea!      

What does this mean in the longer term?  A RAND Corporation study in 2016 found that 16% of the UK's workforce sleeps less than six hours a night on average, with only 19% getting 6-7 hours shut-eye.  It calculated that a total of more than 1.5 million working hours were lost each year as a result of insufficient sleep.  This estimate took into account absenteeism, and "presenteeism" – where employees are at work but performing at a sub-optimal level.  For the UK's economy, it is estimated that these 'lost' hours equate to a cost of £40 billion to GDP.  RAND believes that, if those people sleeping less than six hours a night were to increase their nightly sleep to between six and seven hours, then £24 billion could be added to the economy. 

What has been termed the 'sleep epidemic' offers opportunities to businesses and investors.  The more traditional sleep aids of hot milk, an eye mask and lavender oil have given way to a range of products which claim to assist in banishing sleepless nights.  From bedding and black-out curtains, to expensive 'sleep sprays' and even temperature-controlled bedrooms, it seems we now have the tools to make sure that we are optimising our chances of getting a good night's sleep.  And whilst tech has been blamed by some for keeping us awake at night, there are a plethora of applications and products which claim to aid sleep.  We can use apps with meditations to help us drop off, track how well we sleep, record our sleep-talking (no thank you) and even wake us at the optimum point in our sleep cycle. 

Given the link between sleep and productivity, it is unsurprising that employers are increasingly looking to include sleep assistance in their welfare packages.  This could include access to sleep coaches, who offer workshops for corporate clients, or even making provisions for employees to nap during the day in specially-designed pods.  We may be some way from feeling comfortable taking siestas at our desks (see aforementioned sleep-talking), but there is one Japanese idea we could be swayed by – a bonus for getting enough shut-eye.  We'll keep dreaming…