As Labor Day and the end of summer drew near, we noticed a flurry of articles reporting on studies showing the importance of taking vacation, not working insane hours, and perhaps most important, getting enough sleep. Not only does taking vacation prevent burnout, research shows that it improves performance: when you return from time away, you’re able to focus better and think more clearly and creatively. Working more than 55 hours per week puts you at a higher risk for stroke and heart disease and, because of sharp declines in productivity after 55 hours on the job, is ultimately a waste of time.
But getting enough sleep is where I want to focus. My daughter’s freshman roommate at college hung a poster in their room with the disturbing motto, “Sleep is for the weak.” (Luckily, my kid continued to average about eight hours of sleep a night, a formula that had served her well in a rigorous high school where far too many kids pulled all-nighters and felt overwhelmed and anxious.) Beyond a measurable loss of productivity (the equivalent of 11.3 days per year per worker, according to research out of Harvard), studies on the effect of sleep deprivation in the workforce have uncovered downsides such as employee disengagement and abusive behavior on the part of insomniac bosses.
The last few years have seen the rapid adoption of programs to diagnose and treat sleep disorders. Sometimes education about better sleep habits is all that is needed, but sometime a more serious condition, such as obstructive or central sleep apnea, will need to be addressed. Nearly a third of all large US employers (500 or more employees) now offer a sleep program to employees. Stress can cause or exacerbate sleep problems, and we’re also seeing growth in offerings of resiliency programs to help employees understand the difference between useful and harmful stress and to give them techniques to better handle it (11% of all large employers, and 15% of those with 5,000 or more employees, offer a resiliency program).
And now it turns out that lack of sleep is the single biggest risk factor for catching a cold! Previous research has shown that poor sleep is associated with chronic illnesses, but a new study conducted at UCSF concludes that when compared to those who get more than seven hours of sleep, you are 4.2 times more likely to catch a cold if you sleep less than six hours, and 4.5 times more likely if you sleep less than five hours.
So although prime vacation time is behind us, the cold season is fast approaching! Employers who haven’t yet taken action to help employees get better sleep have a new good reason to consider it. Just don’t stay late to do the research.