Is insomnia killing your productivity at work?

A good sleeper will look at this headline and rapidly move on to the next article…but if, like me, you are one of the 30% of the UK population who suffer from insomnia and sleep deprivation, then you will almost certainly know what this headline is getting at.

Insomnia, put simply, is difficulty in sleeping. Most of us will experience at bout of insomnia at some point in our life, maybe during a stressful event for example, but in the majority of cases the sleep disturbance will resolve itself once life has returned to normal. However for some, sleeplessness is an ongoing problem, and when it’s happening for three or more nights per week, for a period greater than a month, it then becomes classified as ‘chronic’ insomnia. I’ve suffered from chronic insomnia for the past  25 years; in my case my difficulty has always been getting to sleep and it’s not uncommon for me to be unable to sleep for an entire night; but in other cases night waking can be more of a problem.

The most common form of insomnia is known as psycho-physiological insomnia, which means that it isn’t caused by any pre-existing health or environmental factors, but is rather triggered by the interaction between a person’s mind and their bodily systems. The truth is that some of us at more at risk of developing insomnia, due to factors such as getting older, being female, family history (it can be hereditary), and being anxious or depressed.

A couple of years ago, sleep organisation Sleepio commissioned the Great British Sleep Survey, which interviewed 11,129 adults and was probably the biggest study ever of its kind in the UK. Overall it found that 51.3% of us struggle to nod off. Women are three times more likely than men to suffer – 75% of women report problems, compared with 25% of men. Across the pond insomnia is just as great a problem, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 50% of adults in the US experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week.

We know by now that lack of sleep can be detrimental to our health, and beyond this it can have serious impact on our working lives. According to the Sleepio study, long-term insomniacs are three times more likely to struggle to concentrate, twice as likely to suffer from daytime fatigue and twice as likely to struggle to be productive, among other wide-ranging issues. It’s little wonder that insomnia has been found to cost the US workforce $63.2 billion and252.7 days a year in lost productivity.

But before employers rush to sack their insomniac employees, it is worth remembering that there have been many successful insomniacs throughout history such as Margaret Thatcher (who famously slept for four hours a night), Madonna, Patti Smith, Bill Clinton, Charles Dickens and Marcel Proust. It reassures me somewhat that ambition and creativity have often been linked to insomnia. In a 2011 article for Psychology Today, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of Business Psychology at University College London wrote that “insomnia is to exceptional achievement what mental illness is to creativity.” A 2006 study of the sleeping patterns of children published in Creativity Research Journal, concluded that “people with notable creative potential were expected to experience more insomnia than other people.” Speaking from experience, I know that good ideas (or what seem like good ideas at the time!) often come to me when I’m lying awake at night in bed, and that’s why I tend to keep a pen and paper next to my bed to jot such thoughts down.

But the question is, should employers be taking more of an interest in the issue of insomnia, and be doing more to help and support employees who suffer with it? Previously, it was thought that companies could do very little, but gradually that perception is changing.

What can employers do?

* A stressful work situation can often be the root cause of a bout of insomnia, both within individuals who usually sleep well, and those who are long-term sufferers of sleep disturbances. Companies should in theory be aware of stress levels among their employees as a matter of course, but in addition, they could have specific measures in place for monitoring the stress levels of employees known to suffer with insomnia.

* Exercise during the day (and not too late in the evening) has been proven to help with insomnia. Employers could offer relevant employees the flexibility to exercise either before or during work hours, to also benefit their overall mental and physical health.

* A short power-nap, of no more than 30 minutes and no later than 3pm can be extremely helpful for insomniacs. A NASA study showed a 34% boost in performance and 100% increase in alertness, as a result of a 26 minute power nap. Former US president Bill Clinton made no secret of his reliance on daytime naps, and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly scheduled an hour-long nap in the middle of each afternoon. Organisations such as Google, Facebook, NASA and Procter & Gamble are known supporters of power naps within the office environment. To support insomniac employees, companies could explore the possibilities of setting up a designated nap room, for example, or even go the whole hog and invest in some Googleplex-style EnergyPods!

* Screen time too close to bedtime, which includes computer monitors, tablets and smartphones, will keep the brain stimulated and therefore is not conducive to sleep. In addition, working too late at night causes the body to produce the stress hormone cortisol, released by the adrenal gland,which can avert sleep.Too much light from screens at bedtime will also impact melatonin production,tricking the body into thinking that it isn’t yet ready for sleep.

Sleep experts recommend ‘switching-off’ at least an hour before bedtime, and ideally two. To help with this, companies could enforce an evening log-off time among their employees, to avoid making it culture to be available 24/7 (unless that’s part of the job description!). They could even make the company intranet unavailable from 8pm onwards, for example.


Finally, if insomnia is a known problem for a company, The Sleep School set-up by Dr Guy Meadows in the UK is used by many well-known brands, and can help to create a bespoke sleep programme for professionals, educating them in how best to achieve good quality sleep in the face of high work demands and pressures. I have also found Dr Meadow’s ‘The Sleep Book’ very helpful indeed, and I have heard on good authority that his workshops, which use a blend of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, are extremely worth attending.

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