“I’M TIRELESS!”: Sleep Myths and Other Fairy Tales Employees Tell Each Other


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By Douglas Metz, Chief Health Service Officer, EVP, Healthyroads

Sleep: It’s as basic to life as breathing. So, why are so many Americans getting so little of it? According to the 2015 Sleep in America poll, 45 percent of Americans surveyed said they get a good night’s sleep “never,” “rarely,” or “sometimes.” Insufficient sleep has become so pervasive that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed it a “public health problem.”

Increasingly, employers are expressing concerns over this sleep-debt epidemic. And with good reason. Many workers seem to feel that sleep is something they can just shrug off, like post-poning an appointment at the hair-dresser. In fact, society is rampant with sleep myths that support today’s 24/7 wake cycle. You’ve heard them: “Sleep is over-rated;” “I function fine on four hours a night;” or the classic “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”

Despite all the bravado, most sleep-deprived Americans are driving, working and parenting in a mental fog. Sleep supports optimal mental capabilities such as learning, decision-making, and attention-to-detail—key qualities that employees need to be effective. Sleeplessness can increase stress and impact the immune system, making individuals prone to sickness. It’s been associated with cardio vascular disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and shorter life span. A sleep-deprived workforce can lead to increased absenteeism, presenteeism, on-the-job accidents and hospitalizations.

What are the main culprits driving the epidemic of non-sleep? Research has pointed to caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and conditions such as sleep apnea, chronic pain and anxiety. But in today’s 24/7 world, humans have many more attractions luring them away from sleep: televisions, smartphones, tablets, and computers. Thanks to their portability, these devices have invaded the bedroom, encouraging people to answer a few more emails, or watch just one more late night show. In the 2015 Trends in Consumer Mobility Report, 71 percent of those surveyed said they usually sleep with their mobile phones. Three percent said they sleep with the device in their hand!

Despite the plethora of evidence showing that use of devices before bedtime interferes with sleep, Americans seem to think they need their electronic gadgets more than their sleep.

What’s an Employer to Do?

Here are three strategies to encourage better sleep among employees.
1. Adopt sleep as a key component of your wellness culture

Adding “healthy sleep” as a priority goal of wellness in your company can help change employee perceptions of the value of sleep. Develop a sleep “hygiene” campaign that includes practices proven to boost quality sleep. For example, encourage employees to:

  • Challenge their misperceptions about sleep.
  • Develop consistent sleep patterns: going to bed and getting up at the same time each day.
  • Eliminate light from the bedroom including TV, iPad, smart phones, or clocks with neon lights.
  • Eliminate alcohol, coffee or other stimulants before bed.

2. Add mindfulness meditation to your wellness program

Relaxation techniques like mindfulness meditation—the nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings looping through one’s mind—have been proven to calm the brain, allowing us to separate thoughts and emotions, thereby reducing stress. According to research, people who learned mindfulness meditation in addition to sleep hygiene had greater improvements in sleep quality than those who learned sleep hygiene alone.

3.  Provide sleep support

Here are some ways your culture can challenge and reward optimal sleep behaviors:

  • Provide online, interactive sleep education modules.
  • Offer CDs, DVDs, or onsite meditation or yoga.
  • Provide onsite fitness programs. Regular exercise can help improve sleep.

A rested mind is a sharp mind. Helping employees improve sleep behaviors and increase their quality of sleep will pay off in better employee health and productivity.

Douglas Metz is chief health services officer and executive vice president at American Specialty Health (ASH). Dr. Metz has been instrumental in supporting the development of evidence-based quality initiatives, health services and outcomes research, clinical quality management, health policy, accreditation and quality improvement. Dr. Metz is chairman of the Health Standards Advisory Committee of URAC and serves on URAC’s Board of Directors. He has also participated on Committees for the Disease Management Association of America, and the Research Advisory Committee for the Health Enhancement Research Organization, the Corporate Health Improvement Program (CHIP), and the Chief Medical Officer’s Committee of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).