How will a new ‘hybrid work environment’ affect the UK workforce’s sleep debt?

Gosia Bowling, Emotional Wellbeing Enhancement and Prevention Lead, Nuffield Health spoke to Business Leader about the impact a hybrid working environment will have on employees’ ‘sleep debt’.

During the global pandemic, most employees were forced to work from home. Throughout this time, research showed the number of people experiencing insomnia rose to one in four. Google searches for the word “insomnia”  surged significantly, with searches peaking most often during the early hours at 3am and 30 percent said even if they are sleeping longer, they are waking feeling tired and unrefreshed.

It’s clear the nation is having serious trouble sleeping. Whilst COVID restrictions may be easing, a natural return to healthy, regular sleep-wake cycles is not guaranteed in a new hybrid work environment.

I discuss the future of employee sleep in a post-pandemic workplace and why employers need to “wake up to sleep”.

The pandemic’s impact on sleep

50 percent of the UK population report their sleep has been disturbed due to COVID.The pandemic and social confinement have disrupted daily routines that typically serve as timekeepers for our natural body clock. Keeping track of the time, and even the day, can be difficult without our usual time “anchors” like dropping children at school, arriving at the office, or going to the gym.

Sleep habits have become fractured without these usual ‘cues’ leading to a state of ‘social jetlag’ with delayed sleep-wake times, mealtimes, and increased digital media exposure.

Uncertainty has also played a part in affecting sleep. So much was (and still is) unknown. How long will lockdowns last? When will we get our vaccine? When will life return to normal? Such uncertainty often brings anxiety that unsettles sleep as a racing mind keeps the body tossing and turning.

It also takes time for the body, to catch up on ‘missing sleep.’ Research shows it can take four days to fully recover from just one hour of lost sleep. Over time, this creates a “sleep deficit,” making it harder to catch up on sleep and increasing the likelihood of sleep deprivation symptoms.

What are the long-term physical and emotional impacts of sleep deprivation on employees?

Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to a weakened immune system, causing frequent infections and colds. Without enough sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation, effectively reducing the body’s immune response.

Long-term sleep deprivation is also associated with more serious health problems like increased risks of certain cancers, heart disease, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems.

From a physical perspective sleeping less leads to higher levels of stress hormones in our bodies which, in turn, can exacerbate feelings of anger, anxiety and depression. 80 percent of long-term poor sleepers suffer from low mood and are seven times more likely to feel helpless and more likely to feel alone.

The impact on employee productivity

Sleep deprivation has a serious impact on internal productivity with it estimated to cost the UK economy £37bn a year. Studies indicate slower reaction times, poor concentration, and a rise in costly mistakes. 1-2 poor days of sleep per week increases the risk of employee absence by 171 percent.

Notable disasters including the Chernobyl disaster and the Exxon spill were partly caused by a lack of sleep, so symptoms of deprivation should not be taken lightly.

Stress-related fatigue – a nearly constant state of tiredness – is also a common side-effect for those with increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. Even if you receive an adequate amount of sleep at night, fatigue can still leave you feeling tired and unmotivated in the morning with decreased energy and concentration.

Will these effects continue in a ‘hybrid work environment?”

Despite restrictions beginning to lift, employee sleep patterns may remain compromised as more businesses consider a ‘hybrid’ work environment. Many companies already have a flexible working policy, but some will adopt a permanent blended’ working model, with employees continuing to work from home a few days a week.

While anxiety rates may decline, which could have a positive impact on sleep, if more employees continue to work from home, there are permanent factors, which may continue to negatively impact sleep.

For example, for remote workers there is the ongoing risk of ‘leavism’, being unable to switch off or catching up on work outside of contractual working hours. All of these can impact sleep and further increase the risk of burnout and health problems.

The bedroom may double-up as a workspace, as more employees engage in ‘bedmin’ (completing admin tasks whilst in bed) to become the norm and these combined factors may result in disturbed body clocks. As already mentioned, when individual waking hours do not align with our physiological wake-sleep schedule, symptoms are triggered.

Furthermore, if the hybrid work environment has low levels of natural light, light-based cues for wakefulness known as zeitgebers, are reduced further impacting our sensitive circadian rhythms.

Employer support for the ‘new normal’

Businesses can reduce some of the health and business risks caused by pandemic sleep deprivation by thinking practically about work schedules. Avoid scheduling too many early calls and virtual meetings and frequently rotating shifts. For those who work night shifts, if they are rotating, do so in a forward rotation (morning, evening, night).

Employees may not realise they’re experiencing difficulties, so line managers should receive the right training to recognise the signs and offer support when required. This creates an open dialogue around sleep concerns, allowing effective support plans can be created.

Employers should set expectations regarding working hours. In addition, very few organisations have a sleep policy. Although you can’t force employees to sleep well, you can nudge them in the right direction with a policy that covers what good sleep is, the benefits of good sleep, and how to achieve good sleep. Businesses should provide whole of workforce education and self-help resources regarding sleep (such as an online digital platform).

Run virtual talks and invite health experts to discuss the impact of poor sleep and how to support those struggling. For example, you could run a seminar on how exercise can have a positive impact on sleep quality if done correctly.

Employers might consider offering staff cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).  Whether someone already had chronic insomnia or it’s a recent onset from the pandemic, it’s a treatment that is evidence-based and has proven effective for wellbeing difficulties including sleep.