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Health and wellness

How sleep affects health and productivity

March 6, 2023
Desjardins Insurance

Just like physical activity and healthy eating, sleep plays a major role in maintaining a balanced life. Sleep disorders can have a direct impact on people's work and personal lives. In this article, we'll discuss sleep as an essential component of good health, and why employers should be focusing on helping employees get the rest they need. 

Julien Heon, VP at HALEO sleep clinic, sat down with us to share his expertise. 

Causes and consequences of sleep disorders

We've all experienced it at one point or another: a bad night's sleep. Most of the time, we can easily suss out the reason. Sometimes it's some sort of discomfort keeping us up, the wrong pillow, hot flashes or indigestion, for example. Other times, too much screen time before bed or playing sports too late in the day can disrupt our sleep. Stress and interpersonal conflict are also factors that can have an impact on our internal clock, also known as circadian rhythm. 

But when should we start worrying about those sleepless nights? Julien Heon says: "You don't have to have chronic insomnia to see the health consequences of a lack of sleep. After a few nights of poor sleep, you should start looking for answers and advice."

Research shows that sleep affects multiple aspects of our lives, affecting our mental and physical health as well as our daily productivity.

Sleep is closely linked to mental health. People with insomnia are more likely to experience stress and mood swings. Over time, and depending on the severity of the symptoms, this can lead to depression and other mental illnesses. 1  Conversely, better sleep can alleviate mental health issues. 2

Sleep is also a good indicator of our mental health. The numbers speak for themselves: 2 out of 3 individuals with a mental health disorder also suffer from a sleep disorder. 2  "Poor sleep is often one of the first symptoms of a mental health problem," says Julien Heon. Trouble falling asleep and restless sleep can be symptoms of health issues like depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety. 1

People who have trouble sleeping are at increased risk for a myriad of problems, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. Bad sleep can also lead to inflammation throughout the body. 3  These factors can contribute to a number of chronic medical conditions, which are the leading cause of death in industrialized countries 4 .

People with sleep disorders may experience impaired cognitive functions affecting their attention spans, motivation, decision-making and problem-solving skills, memory and creativity. 5 This makes it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to be productive and achieve quality work.

We need daily rest for our bodies to regulate our circadian rhythm and various bodily processes related to our hormones, metabolism, and more. Without restorative sleep, the internal clock becomes deregulated, and it takes more than a few good nights' sleep to get it back on track.  

Why worry about your employees' sleep?

"Employers have a lot to gain by providing their employees with resources that can help them get a good night's sleep. When you take a proactive approach to employee sleep problems, you'll see loads of benefits, like a drop in sick days and workplace accidents." – Julien Heon

Preventing absenteeism, presenteeism and productivity loss

In Canada, the cost of absenteeism and presenteeism due to insomnia is $16 billion a year—as high as the cost of mental illness. 6  In terms of productivity, employees living with insomnia lose the equivalent of 45 working days a year, compared to 10 days for good sleepers. 7  This has a ripple effect on the rest of the team, who then have to work twice as hard to make up for the loss in productivity.

Reducing disability

People with insomnia are 2.5 times more likely to go on disability leave than good sleepers. 6 Considering that up to 15% of adults suffer from chronic insomnia, 8  it's likely that most organizations are affected by this issue. By helping employees treat sleep disorders, employers can reduce the number of disability leaves and demonstrate their commitment to employee wellness.

Minimizing workplace accidents

Is a well-rested workforce the key to minimizing workplace accidents? Absolutely! A study found that sleep problems increase the risk of workplace injury by 2.5 times, particularly for employees working rotating shifts. 9  The causes for these injuries are  usually reduced reaction time and impaired judgement.

What you can do for your teams

Be on the lookout telltalesigns

Pay attention to your employees' moods and behaviours; a sleep problem may be to blame. After the standard "how are you?," ask them how they're sleeping. You can use the question to segue to the topic of sleep disorders and how to mitigate or even eliminate them. Nobody should have to suffer from a lack of sleep for the rest of their life.

Point your employees in theright direction

 There are public and private clinics specialized in diagnosing and treating sleep disorders, whether they're due to an atypical work schedule, post-traumatic stress, sleep apnea, or something else. Consider expanding your benefits package to cover consultations related to sleep problems or sleep care programs like those offered by HALEO, a partner of Desjardins Insurance. 

Start the conversation

"It's quite common for sleep studies to reveal undiagnosed underlying conditions, like depression or anxiety, for which employees didn't want or didn't think to seek help," points out Julien Heon.

Although sleep and mental health are closely related, the latter is rarely something we talk about openly. In the workplace, there's still mental health stigma, and people generally don't want to talk about it. An estimated 75% of Canadians are reluctant to talk about their mental health condition with their employer or co-workers. 10  Starting a conversation about sleep in the workplace and sharing helpful resources is a good starting point that could open a broader dialogue on mental health, which would in turn break taboos and encourage people to seek help.

For a healthy organization, it's crucial to invest in your most valuable asset: the health of your employees. By taking a genuine interest in sleep, you're showing employees that you're committed to offering a comprehensive workplace strategy that supports their well-being. Providing information, screening tools and access to treatment should ultimately improve employee retention and overall wellness. Organizations have everything to gain from this type of approach!