Good Night, Sleep Tight and turn off that Blue Light.

A report by Deloitte Access Economics has estimated that 39.8% of Australians aren’t getting enough sleep, a problem that may be impacting productivity at a cost of $17.9 billion or $2,418 per person per year. I don’t know how enough was determined, or who valued the link between tiredness and the cost to the economy. I do know that if I’ve had a bad night’s sleep, I am far more likely to buy coffees and chocolate. My fatigue may in fact, boost the economy on those days.
If you’ve ever been seriously sleep-deprived, you will surely be aware of the impact on your ability to function and work safely. The most basic studies on fatigue and efficiency show that simple tasks take longer and that when we are tired, we’re far more prone to making silly mistakes. Tired people who operate machinery can be a danger to themselves and others.
But fatigue from the lack of a good sleep is not an easy workplace issue to address. Many companies have fatigue policies but are wilfully blind to the horrendous commutes some workers have before the day starts. They would, with some justification, say that this is their choice. We cannot tell people where to live.
And employers are not responsible for an employee’s bad habit of looking at screens during the night, causing blue light to drop the chances of getting back to a good sleep. *
Employers can do some things to help alleviate fatigue.
Keeping an eye out for people who look tired is an obvious remedy. We can sometimes persuade people who clearly look exhausted, to pack it up and go home. It doesn’t mean they will take that advice, and admit they need sleep. It might even be more dangerous to instruct them to start the drive home.
Encouraging people to take their annual leave is another practical strategy. And while on a break, they should be strongly encouraged to refrain from answering emails or calls and put a delegated contact on an out of office message. The out of office habit is easy enough to develop, but I can tell you from experience, that people who bank up large amounts of annual leave, rarely do so accidentally. I recall talking to one man about his holiday accrual of about a decade’s worth of leave. His rather tired response was, ‘You just don’t understand. If I take a few days off, my wife gives me a To Do list for chores around the house that’s as long as your arm.’ He was, in fact, hiding at work from his wife.
A culture that genuinely discourages out of hours work emails or calls is do-able. Senior managers can quickly set the tone in this by not sending or receiving out of hours. 99% of questions or problems can wait, unless you work in a life and death business. In 2017, France gave its workers the legal right to avoid responding to texts or emails on days off or during the night.
The CEO of AETNA, one Mark Bertolini, is so convinced of the link between sleep and productivity, he has set up a scheme to reward people for getting a good sleep. AETNA workers are encouraged to use Fitbit trackers to monitor their sleep and if they can get twenty nights of sleep at seven hours or more in a row, they are given around $33 AUD per night up to a limit of about $660 per year.
I have concerns with this initiative, though it may be well intentioned. The first one is that my Fitbit sends me an annoying buzz if I am sedentary for any length of time. Wouldn’t this be counter-productive? But more than this, I would not wish to sleep with the equivalent of a parolee’s electronic tag on my wrist, just to earn a few extra dollars. Surely that time is my own time, free of work pressures and performance indicators. AETNA’s scheme is a seemingly ‘fun’ motivational idea but pity the poor workers who wake up to feed a baby, attend to a child having a nightmare or do other very human things during the night and miss their cash bonus.
Most people understand the term absenteeism but presenteeism is less commonly used and it can be used to describe the overly tired employee. It can be simply defined as ‘I’m here but I’m not really here’ or even, ‘I’m pretending to be useful.’ Can anything be done for the present worker who has come to work too tired to function properly and needs some sleep immediately?
Google has high tech nap pods which allow people to recline in privacy and some businesses do have nap rooms. I recently met some younger women from a small recruitment agency in Sydney that insisted their staff have an afternoon nap. In one company I worked for, napping at lunchtime with heads on desks was relatively common.
But even a culture of napping at desks may carry a peculiar risk. Consider the case in Finland in 2004, where a tax official died at work while checking returns. We can all sympathise with the cause of death, but he worked on a floor with 100 other workers, had about 30 people in his immediate audit team, and no one around him noticed he was dead for two days. The flag only went up when a friend stopped by his office to have lunch with him.
It’s not a simple problem to fix and I do not know the answers, but I will sleep on it.
*Stephen Lockley of Harvard University. Earlier work on sleep and circadian rhythms was produced by Dr Charles Czeisler of Harvard in 1981.