A real eye-opener: Navigating the UK’s pandemic ‘sleep debt’ crisis

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As pandemic home work begins to shift to more permanent ‘hybrid’ work, both employers and occupational health may need to take a more proactive approach to supporting employees in good sleep practices. and sleep hygiene, argues Gosia Bowling.

The pandemic has disrupted our routines both inside and outside the workplace, with many suddenly being forced to work from home. While many have embraced the positive aspects of working remotely – such as reduced commuting, the ability to exercise or spend more time with family – the change has taken its toll on other aspects of our lives. lives.

Research shows the number of people with insomnia has risen to one in four since the pandemic, many turn to the Internet for help. Google searches for “insomnia” have flew, most of them being done early in the morning, around 3 a.m.

As we look forward to the relaxation of restrictions, it’s important to note that the “new normal” will not automatically facilitate perfect sleep patterns. Businesses will likely take a “hybrid” approach to work, and employees will face new challenges. This is why it is crucial that employers “fall asleep” and work with occupational health practitioners to support their workforce.

The impact of the pandemic on sleep

Sleep disturbances have been one of the many negative symptoms of pandemic life, with 50% from the UK who experienced sleep loss in the past year.

Our biological clocks have been disrupted by social restrictions, with individuals unable to trust their usual “time anchors” – such as morning commutes, evening errands, and general exposure to clear mornings and dark evenings. Our meal times and normal work and life routines were also disrupted.

As a result, our bodies find it difficult to regulate the time and ‘turn off’ at night when we need to rest and recharge.

In addition, the pandemic has consequences for mental health. The constant uncertainty that surrounds our lives – from anxiety around job security to worrying about the physical risk of the virus – it leaves us in a constantly heightened state of stress.

As our bodies remain in “alert mode” with increased heart rate and blood pressure, it is difficult to return to the level of relaxation needed to fall asleep at night.

The problem is, we can’t just “start over” or pay off our sleep debt the next day. It takes time to physically recover from lost sleep. A single hour of lost sleep can cause the body catch up for four days.

For chronically struggling sleepers, this sleep debt accumulates to have a significant impact on all aspects of their lives.

Measure long-term effects

Lack of sleep doesn’t just leave employees feeling tired and groggy. Sleep deprivation can also lead to a weakened immune system, as our bodies are unable to effectively target infections and inflammation. Employees are then more likely to suffer from colds and infections, which in turn impacts performance at work and further disrupts their sleep in the future.

Long-term sleep deprivation is also linked to more serious health problems like an increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems.

Once people are in a poor sleep cycle, it can be difficult to escape. Up to 35% of people who have had trouble sleeping have done so for five years or more. Unregulated sleep leads to higher levels of stress hormones in our body, as well as impacting our appetite regulators and musculoskeletal (MSK) health.

Occupational health practitioners have a role to play in helping employees manage the impact resulting from poor sleep, which can include fatigue, anger, anxiety and depression, hunger and even pain. physical. This may include broader tips such as improving their remote working setup, suggesting daily exercise to alleviate MSK issues, and regulating their appetite by making more nutritional food choices.

Occupational health practitioners have a role to play in helping employees manage the impact resulting from poor sleep, which can include fatigue, anger, anxiety and depression, hunger and even pain. physical. This may include broader tips such as improving their remote working setup, suggesting daily exercise to alleviate MSK issues, and regulating their appetite by making more nutritional food choices.

With this support, individuals can be helped to break the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.

Low productivity

It is believed that sleep deprivation will cost the UK economy £ 37 billion a year of lost productivity, with bad sleepers having reduced reaction times and difficulty concentrating. They are also more likely to have accidents or make costly mistakes.

Ultimately, chronic disrupted sleep increases the risk of being absent from work. by 171%.

Those trapped in the vicious cycle of disturbed sleep may experience stress-related fatigue – a constant state of fatigue, more frequent in anxious and depressed people. Even if they get a period of quality sleep, they can still feel tired.

Despite the impact of fatigue on productivity at work, 86% of working adults in the UK report feeling unable to speak openly and confidently with their supervisor about how fatigue affects their performance.

Taken together, these numbers should serve as a “wake-up call” for employers.

Will a hybrid work environment be any different?

In the wake of the success of flexible working, many companies are likely to adopt a “hybrid” work environment, with employees continuing to work from home a few days a week.

For many, this brings benefits in terms of limited daily commutes and a better balance between work and personal tasks – reducing anxiety, which can improve sleep in those who find their mind racing when their head is racing. hits the pillow.

However, the impact of long-term remote working – even as part of a hybrid approach – can also wreak havoc on employees who struggle to disconnect.

Remote employees can regularly exceed their scheduled working hours, continue to respond to emails late into the evening, and engage in “bedmin”. And while they might think of it as harmless and proactive, the reality is that it’s hard to relax when you’re used to being “always active.”

Employers can provide advice on the separation of work and family life. This may include encouraging appropriate ‘sleep hygiene’ for remote workers and suggesting ways to move from work to personal life, for example by exercising after work or turning off notifications. devices outside working hours.

Support for employers in the “new normal”

Companies tend to overestimate individuals who underestimate sleep. However, for those looking to maximize the potential of their employees and build a positive and productive workforce, reducing the business and health risks associated with sleep deprivation is important.

Those who take a hybrid approach to work need to set their expectations up front. This means setting working hours and informing employees that they are not supposed to respond to emails outside of them. Employees should also be encouraged to bypass their natural sleep patterns where possible, for example, by avoiding scheduling calls early in the morning or late at night.

It can be difficult for career-focused employees to notice signs of difficulty in themselves, so supervisors need to be equipped to recognize the distress of others and be confident in supporting them. Emotional literacy training and mental health awareness training for managers are designed to equip leaders with effective knowledge, tools and skills.

Occupational health specialists also play a key role in helping employees get quality sleep. This can include helping them figure out how to structure their day, for example avoiding having potentially stressful meetings in the late afternoon, when they risk bringing stress home when their bodies need to relax. loosen.

Providing advice on nutrition and caffeine can help individuals make healthier choices, avoiding unhealthy habits that can exacerbate feelings of tiredness or fatigue, or stimulants that have the opposite effect, increasing their heart rate. and making them particularly alert, interfering with rest and sleep.

It is also important to stress the benefits of exercise in regulating sleep patterns, but not right before bed, as we stay in “on” mode for a while after exercise, which makes sleep difficult. Instead, an outdoor run or a brisk lunchtime walk not only takes workers away from their desks, but also exposes them to natural daylight, thereby promoting healthy sleep hormones.

Employers who are worried their teams won’t take healthy breaks or are reluctant to stop may even consider hosting group exercise classes. For example, inviting a fitness instructor to host a video call lunch session and informing employees that they are encouraged to attend. It is important to lead by example and announcing that directors and managers will attend these sessions can drive adoption across the company.

Additional employer support may include inviting a sleep specialist to host a webinar on best practices before bed, such as avoiding blue light devices and keeping bed for sleep only – not for work.

Likewise, offering cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach that helps employees recognize and break unnecessary thought patterns that trigger anxiety and stress that keep them awake at night.


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