Legend has it that Margaret Thatcher used to run the country on just four hours sleep a night.
The oft-quoted rumour helped define an era of the 1980s when sleep, along with lunch, apparently was for wimps.
But now we live in more enlightened times and organisations are waking up to the impact that sleep deprivation can have on the workplace.
According to the AXA PPP healthcare’s recent State of the Nation report, more than half (54%) struggle to sleep at night and one in 10 of us experience insomnia.
The report also claimed almost two thirds (63%) of people are unhappy with amount of sleep they get and that sleep-deprived workers cost the UK economy around £40 billion a year.
“Sleep is one of the most important parts of our daily lives,” says AXA PPP healthcare’s director of psychological services, Dr Mark Winwood. “It is vital to our health and wellbeing.”
And a report by the British bed manufacturer Sealy claimed 65% of people regularly lose their temper or have been irritable to a colleague at work because of a lack of sleep.
Sleep and productivity
The same research found around a third (30%) of workers claim are less productive because of a lack of sleep, and 19% of staff say they are often late into work or have time off as a result.
Marcus de Guingand, the managing director of Third Pillar of Health, which advises organisations on how to manage fatigue, says the issue is “hugely common and widespread”.
“The US Centre for Disease Control recently said that sleep deprivation has overtaken obesity as America’s greatest public health issue,” said Mr de Guingand, who will also be delivering a presentation on the subject at Safety and Health Expo on 19th June at ExCel, London.
‘Culture of busyness’
“My own view is we have got to the stage where we live in a culture of busyness,” he tells SHP Online. “We feel we have to be seen as busy. We fill our days to the maximum and we very rarely give ourselves a chance to unwind, or to stop for 20 minutes and address some of the issues in our lives.
“There is no organisation that is not affected by the increasing of sleep deprivation across society,” he adds.
“Every single workforce will be suffering as a result of the trends we are seeing around sleep duration and sleep quality.
“Clearly, there will be industries where you have shift workers, where the problem is likely to be more acute. There is plenty of research to show sleep quality is poorer in shift workers, particularly for those on night shifts when they are trying to sleep during the day.
Four steps employers can take to manage fatigue in workplace
“Frequently, we find employers are trying to find a silver bullet to deal with fatigue, but there is not one,” he adds. “We advocate a different approach, which has four steps. The first step is awareness. We advocate an assessment of the workforce to understand the extent, impact and causes of tiredness and fatigue, and which groups have a particular issue.”
Mr de Guingand says the next stage for any company is to review the policies and procedures in the business and ensure they address the actual issues in the business.
“Once you have run the awareness phase, you need to present the findings to management, health and safety and training personnel with workable solutions.
“It might be as simple reviewing whether a particular shift pattern is causing fatigue or examining cultural issues in the organisation.
“You find in a lot of organisations, particularly in industries like construction, there are policies in place where if someone is commuting a long distance and having an early morning or late evening meeting, they will be permitted to use a hotel room. But frequently, it is not taken up and people prefer to commute. Perhaps they do not understand the dangers that entails? So there might be there cultural barriers within an organization.”
He added many companies already have employee assistance programmes (EAPs) in place, which may include cognitive behavioral therapists who may be able to help.
“Most organisations have something in place, which could be hugely beneficial to members of staff who are dealing with serious sleep issues, but they need to be promoted in a way that is relevant to staff and the issues affecting them.”
Why sleep deprivation can be difficult to spot
While Jason Eden, the founder of Sleep and Fatigue Research (safr) tells SHP Online that people often “fool themselves” over the effects of sleep deprivation.
“When fatigue builds up over time, it happens almost unnoticed and people forget what it feels to be fully rested.
“We did a piece of work with a company of one of their drivers had really low levels of alertness and high levels of fatigue,” explains Mr Eden.
“We could see his levels were getting worse through the week, but he said ‘I only need four hours sleep a night, I’m fine’.
“When we showed him the data, you could see he got four-and-a-half hours sleep Monday through to Thursday, but when it got to Friday, he was sleeping for 11 hours, and on Saturday he was sleeping for 10-and-a-half hours.
Accident eight times more likely
“What he was doing was fatiguing himself through the week and then relying on huge recovery sleeps over the weekend. First of all, that’s incredibly and secondly, it’s just dangerous.
“The likelihood of him being involved in an accident was eight times greater than someone who had been sleeping properly,” adds Mr Eden.
“The best thing you can do is encourage people to change their behaviours and get more sleep,” he adds. “There are many reasons why they should do that for their own personal wellbeing, over and above safety at work.
“People who get less than six hours sleep a night have a 50% increased chance of developing or dying from heart disease, and a 12.5% increased chance of dying before the age of 65 from any cause.”
And Mr Eden cites the work of Professor Matthew Walker from the University of California, Berkeley.
Sleep – the most important pillar of health
“He used to say the three pillars of good health are sleep, diet and exercise,” recalls Mr Eden. “But now he has changed his mind and he believes the single most effective thing that we can do to reset our brains and bodies is sleep. He believes it has more impact than diet and exercise on our wellbeing.”
And what of the stories that one of Britain’s former prime ministers used to survive on four hours kip a night?
“There are a vanishingly small number of people who genuinely need only four hours sleep a night,” he says. “Some of those people have a rare gene, but you are more likely to be struck by lightning that have that gene.”