The events of the last six months have undoubtedly impacted all of us, in some way or another. Not least of these impacts, for many, is sleep. Whether related to concerns about returning to the workplace, uncertainty about what the future will bring, financial stressors, feeling more isolated at home, or any multitude of other stressors, inadequate sleep is often an outcome.

Increasingly referred to as COVID-somnia by some sleep neurologists, it shows up in a number of different ways, including changes in sleeping patterns (e.g. due to not having to commute, more time off, changed hours, family care, etc.), lack of sleep, too much sleep (hypersomnia), nightmares, intermittent waking up, and reliance upon sleep medications.

While the optimum amount of recommended nightly sleep is 7 to 9 hours, an online poll conducted late last year by Research Co. found that a mere 35% of Canadians are getting this amount – and 64% reported getting less than 7 hours per night on average. And keep in mind, this was pre-COVID. A more recent Ipsos Canada survey found that financial/economic concerns related specifically to the pandemic are keeping a third of Canadians up at night, or are otherwise impacting their sleep. This was 17% higher than previously reported (i.e. prior to March, 2020).

While it varies by individual circumstance, there are a number of significant outcomes of not sleeping which can impact all aspects of one’s life. These include:

  • Inability to focus, brain fog and becoming more easily distracted
  • Increased irritability (e.g. more easily angered or emotional, and less patient)
  • Increased anxiety
  • Lessened creativity
  • Overall feeling unwell, even flu or cold-like (e.g. lethargic, nauseous, achy, etc.)
  • Decreased immune system, which, over time, can increase vulnerability to serious health concerns
  • Inability to manage stress
  • Ineffective decision making (which can lead to increased risk taking)
  • Impaired motor skills and slowed reaction time
  • Increase in accidents (the National Sleep Foundation indicated that insufficient sleep increases the likelihood of accidents by 70%)
  • Falling asleep at work and/or while driving (the American Sleep Association found that nearly 38% of adults have unintentionally fallen asleep during the day and the Canadian Safety Council found that 20% of Canadians have fallen asleep while driving in the previous year!)
  • More time off and overall less productivity

While insufficient/low quality sleep clearly impacts safety, health, and productivity, it also has a significant impact on the bottom line. According to a 2016 survey conducted by RAND, 80,000 work days are lost due to lack of sleep amongst Canadian workers – and that number is surely higher these days. The National Sleep Council in the US more recently estimated that sleep-fatigued employees cost anywhere between $1,200 to $3,100 USD per employee each year.

Sleep is, in a word, critical.

There are a number of measures that individuals can take to help support a good night’s sleep on an ongoing basis. As well, there are a great number of excellent resources on this topic. We recommend Matthew Walker’s 2019 Ted Talk and his book, Why We Sleep. The Canadian Sleep Society also recommends a number of other books and resources and Book Authority recommends several more recent books, including sleep tracking journals.

What Can Employers Do?
While sleep is obviously unique to each individual and how employees manage their own sleep will differ from one to another, there are some things that employers can do to support healthy sleep habits, such as:

Fit to Work – Ensure you have a “Fit to Work” policy that not only outlines that employees must be in an appropriate condition to work safety and effectively, but also how your organization will support them in doing so. Support might include workplace accommodations (as outlined below) in addition to offering benefits, such as health/wellness options, access to an EAP, specific sleep education, sleep clinic subsidy and tech supports such as Dreem, Sleepio or Dayzz).

Individual Accommodations – Where possible, adjust hours, provide more flexibility/choice, and allow for “siesta” time, short naps and/or exercise during breaks. While for some, these may be more possible if/while employees are working from home, they can also be implemented in the workplace (e.g. some employers even provide “quiet” rooms for napping, meditation, etc.). For employees with young children/family care, sleep and breaks/wellness during the day can be even more challenging, particularly if working from home. Consider if/how hours can be adjusted accordingly, and focus on outcomes, not output.

Set Boundaries – Minimize split or irregular shifts, ongoing night shifts, and excessive overtime and ensure that employees have at least 10 hours between shifts (rather than the minimum 8 required by ESA and CLC).

Model Healthy Behaviour – While some employees are often left to make their own choices about how long they work, you may need to gently push them out the door or otherwise away from their computers, if they’re working remotely. It’s also important to set a good example. When management models behaviour that suggests working excessive hours (e.g. sending emails at all hours of the day/night) is valued, employees feel pressure to follow suit. Here again, the focus should be on outcome, not output and managers should be encouraged to discuss this with their employees, so there’s mutual understanding.

Environmental Factors – In the workplace, ensure lighting is bright enough to maintain alertness, that temperature isn’t too warm (or cold), and where possible, play varied music which stimulates mental alertness. Support employees who are working from home with information and/or even providing subsidies to ensure a safe, ergonomic and appropriate workspace.

Promote and Offer Wellness and Mindfulness Supports – Whether fitness, meditation, yoga, or other options, these can go a long way to help facilitate a good night’s sleep. Additionally, provide healthy snacks (as opposed to processed food that’s high in sugar, and highly caffeinated beverages).

Check In – As with all issues that employees come up against, if you notice ongoing sleepiness, fatigue, or other related issues, check in right away! While they may not want to get into details (and you shouldn’t press for them), they’ll very likely appreciate your care and concern and be willing to discuss options – options that may help support other employees as well.