Prescribe sleep to staff to treat the silent sleep-loss epidemic  

Keith Bushnell, HCML CEO, explains why sleep hygiene should be prescribed to everyone in the workplace to preserve good mental health and aid recovery and rehabilitation.

We are in the grip of sleep loss epidemic, according to The World Health Organisation. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker, warned in his 2017 book, ‘Why We Sleep’, that the decimation of sleep throughout industrialised nations is a public health disaster, has a catastrophic impact on health and safety, productivity and life expectancy.

Our clinicians always instruct the people in our care that a healthy sleep pattern is an essential, universal health care provider, helping with numerous health issues to repair body and mind. They routinely prescribe a better sleep hygiene routine.

Getting enough good quality sleep helps ward off mental health issues like depression and anxiety and has a direct influence on how we perceive pain.

Research shows the less sleep people have, or the more fragmented their sleep, the more sensitive they are to pain.  Most patients with chronic pain are poor sleepers.

Regular sleep patterns help with a healthy body weight by lowering food cravings.  It wards off colds and flu and offers protection from cancer and dementia and lowers the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

One key function of sleep is processing and consolidating memories. Researchers have observed people asleep in a functional MRI scanner and seen the transfer of a memory trace from one region of the brain to another - the first time this filing has been seen in sleeping humans.

Sleep deprived employees are less productive, less happy and typically need to work longer to accomplish the end goal, which can set up a vicious long-hours cycle.

Sleep-deprived managers can be even more harmful. Research shows that in the days after a supervisor has slept poorly, their employees became less engaged, suggesting a chain reaction infecting well rested employees and productivity.

Experts put the blame on changing social and employment patterns together with sleep-disrupting consumer products.  So what can HR professionals do to help staff improve their sleep hygiene, when surviving on little sleep has been celebrated for so long?

Five aspects of workplace reform could have fairly fast results.

 One is to consider flexible work shifts, particularly for any night owls returning to work after sickness absence.  A typical working day tends to punish night owls and favour morning larks because schedules favour early risers. The night-owl preference is hardwired into people and hard to reset, often forcing them to burn the candle at both ends.  Owls might get more sleep with some flexibility.

The other is to banish late night work emails. The recent intrusion of smart phones and technology into our bedrooms is disrupting our circadian rhythms of sleep and wakefulness.

Attend more to shift workers who live their lives in the twilight hour, and who are prey to a catalogue of health problems. They may need more support.

Finally, coach staff to think about the science of sleep and adopt four new habits:

  1. Aim for the recommended eight hours of sleep each night and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  2. Ditch the habit of sleeping later at weekends to make up for mid-week sleep deficits
  3. Cut out caffeine later in the day. It blocks a signal within the brain and the build-up of the sleep chemical, adenosine, which should change in tandem with melatonin, the sleep hormone. This sleep-disrupting affect take hours to wear off.
  4. Boost daylight exposure to boost daily sleep patterns, by going out in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes every day