Butler on Benefits

You Are Getting Sleepy ... Employees

It seems clear that sleep could be the linchpin to achieving better wellness results.

June 29, 2014

If you have an employee wellness program, most likely it targets lowering employee obesity and stress, as well as managing chronic conditions like high blood pressure. Do you know one thing that can improve all three of those health issues — which, by the way, cost millions in medical claims, absenteeism and lost productivity?

It’s sleep. More and better sleep.

Neurological research shows that sleeplessness reduces our brains’ “high order” powers that lead us to make more discerning decisions in our own best inteRetiree health care chart 1 November 2013rest, but also increases our brains’ more primitive responses. This combination of brain activities can lead to poor food choices. In addition, inadequate sleep can spike the secretion of ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite, and lower leptin, one that tells the body it’s satiated.

Second, a Stanford University stress expert has concludedthat the same brain chemical that brings on deep sleep is the same one that tells the pituitary gland to slow the brain’s stress hormones. Thus, stress hormone output remains high, and sleep deprivation results. In addition, similar research shows that sleep deprivation increases the output of stress hormones, which makes good sleep harder to come by.

Then, according to Mayo Clinic, people who sleep five hours or less a night may be at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure or worsening already high blood pressure. (Editor’s note: For more on sleep problems at work, see “Sleep Derailed,” p. 28.)

It seems clear that sleep could be the linchpin to achieving better wellness results. If nothing else, it clearly is linked to improved employee productivity. According to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly 37 percent of Americans say they are so sleepy during the day that it interferes with their routine activities, and 93 percent say sleepiness impairs their work performance.

Sleepiness appears to be a problem across all age groups represented in the workforce as well. The foundation finds that lack of adequate sleep negatively affects 44 percent of those aged 18 to 29, 38 percent of 30- to 64-year-olds and 23 percent of those aged 65 and over.

If you’re still unsure whether targeting better sleep in your company wellness program is worth it, consider this factoid from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 30 percent of Americans say just one extra hour of sleep per night is worth $100. That amount likely is a drop in the bucket compared with your per-employee wellness investment.

So, where to start? A few tips from the sleep experts:

Add “sleep screenings” to your general employee wellness screening and/or health risk assessment. Asking employees how many hours of sleep they get per night, as well as their perceived quality of those hours, could go a long way to zzzzzeroing in on workers with current or potential sleep disorders.

Call in the Cleveland Clinic. The renowned medical center offers a six-week online program called “Go! to Sleep.” Applying strategies similar to those used at the nation’s top sleep clinics, the program allows users to work toward improving their sleep habits from the comfort and privacy of their own bedroom. Expandable to the workplace? Indeed. Plus, a study from the University of Manitoba (Canada) shows 81 percent of insomnia patients who completed the program reported improved sleep.

Expand wearable wellness tech. Stats from Nielsen show that 73 percent of consumers who currently use or have high interest in tech are aware of wearable health trackers like the Fitbit wristband or Pebble smart watch, and 48 percent want one. A good number of employers offer wearable tech as a wellness incentive to jump-start employee fitness. But, as noted above, sleep is a big part of health and wellness anyway — so, add wearable tech to that effort. Wearing a Fitbit while sleeping can track the soundness of a user’s sleep, including the number of times someone wakes up nightly, even if that person doesn’t realize it.

Of course, just these ideas won’t solve sleeplessness in one night, but they can spark your thinking — get visions of sugar plums dancing in your head, so to speak — about where and how to make wellness investments so that sleep can be part of your broader focus.

And to all a good night!

Kelley M. Butler is the editorial director at Benz Communications, an HR/benefits communication strategy firm. Prior to joining Benz, Butler spent 11 years at Employee Benefit News, including seven as editor-in-chief. To comment, email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.