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The one time employers belong in the bedroom

Lack of sleep is costing the Canadian economy more than $21 billion
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By Todd Humber

This column starts with a mighty yawn. We’re binge-watching Homeland on Netflix (I know, late to the party — but it’s so good), and we snuck in one more episode than we probably should have given it was a school night and all.

Nor does it help that my brain seems to kick into high gear as soon as it hits the pillow — why sleep when you can solve the world’s problems, muse about the minutia of summer vacation or stress about that one thing (or was that 10 things) you just remembered you forgot to do before you left the office?

To add insult to injury, the Toronto area got walloped with a winter storm this morning that turned my leisurely 45 minute drive into an hour-and-a-half white knuckle odyssey. So the six-odd hours of sleep I got seems woefully inadequate this morning — but I’m in good company.

As John Dujay points out in his article on page 3 of upcoming Jan. 23 issue of Canadian HR Reporter, lack of sleep is costing the economy more than $21 billion — or 80,000 workdays — in lost productivity. Six hours appears to be the bare minimum of shut-eye time we need, so apparently I’m on the edge today.

Workers who average less than six hours of sleep “have a 13 per cent greater chance of mortality risk over someone who gets between seven and nine hours sleep,” Dujay wrote, citing a report from RAND.

Great, so not only are we tired but we’re more likely to die in a car crash or develop diseases such as cancer, stroke and diabetes in the long run. I slightly jest, but these are serious issues and few people take sleep as seriously as they do other health issues such as diet and exercise. But they should.

The more immediate effects of sleep deprivation are obvious and annoying — crankiness, poor concentration and memory loss. Researchers have compared sleep deprivation to being drunk. None of this adds up to a positive experience in the workplace, either from a safety perspective or a morale issue, and the problem is more rampant than you might guess.

How many workers do you think report showing up to work tired every day? One in 20? One in 10? It’s actually more than one out of four employees, found the study of 739 workers. One-quarter of your employees (27 per cent) are regularly showing up at the office already beat before they punch in — more likely to make mistakes. If any other issue other than sleep deprivation caused this level of productivity loss, we’d tackle it with fervour.

It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but a 1995 Statistics Canada article titled “Tired workers” found just one in 25 Canadian workers were chronically tired — so it appears the situation is much, much worse than it was 20 years ago.

And don’t look for a profile of a sleep deprived worker — they span every demographic, every industry and every management level.

“They were not concentrated in any particular major occupation or industry group, or even any type of shift schedule. Women were no more prone than men to chronic tiredness,” wrote Susan Crompton in the Statistics Canada article. “Women with young children were no more likely than those without preschoolers to be tired.”

But it’s just a lack of sleep, right? Everybody’s tired, nobody gets enough shut eye so we just grin and bear it and hope that — somehow — things will get better and we’ll catch up on those Zs later. It’s the old “I’ll sleep when I’m dead mentality.”

One of the biggest offenders in reducing the quantity and quality of our sleep are smartphones and tablets. As Dujay’s article points out, the blue light emitted can lower levels of melatonin — which is a hormone that essentially regulates the body’s inner clock. On nights when I have a serious case of insomnia, I’ve taken a melatonin supplement and it certainly knocks me out.

Many of us are guilty of checking work email before we go to bed, and it usually causes more harm than good. Even if you don’t respond to an email under the sheets, you’re going to be thinking about the response — crafting different options in your head and plotting how you’ll handle the problem in the morning.

That’s why it’s important to encourage employees not to check email on a regular basis after-hours. That’s easier said than done, but management can set the example by not sending emails late at night and certainly making it clear that — even if that happens — an answer isn’t expected until the next day.

If a true emergency strikes at work, a good old fashioned phone call or text message can cut through the clutter and avoid the need to scroll through email when the lights are out.

Employers need to educate workers about the benefits of a good night’s sleep with the same gusto as other wellness initiatives. After all, this is the one (and only) time employers belong in the bedroom.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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