The Immune System Needs Sleep So That It—and Your Team—Can Work

Your employees are the bedrock and soul of your organization. Without them, you could have all the best tech and strategies in the world … but no one to wield them. The best leaders recognize this fact, and view productivity through a compassionate, humanized lens. The wellbeing of their workers is their foremost concern—and they look at this wellbeing holistically, considering its cognitive, physical, and emotional aspects.

You’ve probably seen how a bout of sickness can swiftly upset both production and office morale. As the world remains under siege from COVID-19, immunity has become an urgent buzzword among employers. But even when a pandemic isn’t raging, you should be thinking about your employees’ immune systems as a key part of their wellbeing. And to that end, you should know how sleep plays a huge role in protecting their health.

Wellbeing Should Be A Leader’s First Concern

Sleep deprivation leaves immune systems vulnerable. This fact should alarm leaders on multiple levels, as it implies both enormous value loss for companies and complex health concerns for the people who staff them.

The High Cost of an Imbalanced Immune System

Firstly, there’s the cost associated with employee sickness. The link between lack of sleep, poor health, and poor work performance is well-documented. Estimates of the total health-related cost to businesses vary widely, but most sources cite a number in the hundreds of billions of dollars. For example, in 2015, the CDC calculated that worker absenteeism cost American employers $225.8 billion a year in lost productivity.

But that’s only looking at people who called out sick. Presenteeism, or showing up to work while ill or otherwise impaired, is just as expensive and worrisome for companies.

According to the Virgin Pulse Global Challenge, corporate employees take about 4 sick days a year each, but are present at work but sick (or otherwise impaired) 57.5 days a year each—almost an entire quarter.

Research suggests that presenteeism can decrease a person’s productivity by a third or more. Not only that, but it can spread sickness throughout the office, magnifying its cost in both dollars and morale. The American Productivity Audit, which surveys more than 25,000 workers, estimated that presenteeism costs the nation’s economy $150 billion in lost productivity every year.

What about combined figures? A 2011 study looked at both absenteeism and presenteeism to try and develop a formula that anticipated health-related company costs. It found that “for an average-size employer … for every dollar of medical costs there were 0.4 dollars of productivity costs.” The Integrated Benefits Institute took a similar big-picture approach, and concluded that employee health problems cost U.S. employers a staggering $530 billion each year.

Protecting Lives Long-Term

Looking out for your team’s wellbeing also has long-term benefits for their health. Studies suggest that sleep deprivation can have more far-reaching repercussions than a single case of the sniffles: lack of sleep is also linked to coronary heart disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis, neurodegeneration, and a higher risk of mortality. Investing in your employees’ immune systems through sleep therefore makes a decisive and lasting difference, augmenting their productivity while potentially adding years to their lives.

Finally, any compassionate manager would agree that no one wants a team member to suffer through a prolonged illness. The act of safeguarding your employees’ health should always be rooted in empathy and care, not just dollars and cents.

How the Immune System Works

Unlike the digestive or cardiovascular system, the immune system isn’t easily mapped onto a model of the human body. That’s because it’s an intricate network that relies on organs, tissues, and specialized cells to recognize and combat disease.

When a virus enters the body, it sets about hijacking cells and using them to replicate itself. As a countermeasure, the immune system sends out T-cells, which aggressively seek out and kill infected cells, and B-cells, which identify and mark invading cells so that they can be targeted and destroyed.

Many people imagine the immune system as this army of cells, poised to attack any foreign element. Although it’s true that your immune system deploys these cells to swarm and kill invaders, the network must also strive to maintain balance—too much of an immune response can cause problems on its own. Allergies, for example, are an overreaction by your immune system to a relatively benign substance.

A more encompassing definition would say that, typically, your immune system strives to prevent, expel, limit, or destroy infection. If it sends cells to attack the source of infection, it also aims to minimize any damage to the host—you. An immune response to a problem is scientifically known as inflammation.

Another common misconception is that all symptoms of an illness, such as fever or a sore throat, are caused by the illness wreaking havoc on the body. In fact, many of these symptoms are indicative of inflammation. They’re the immune system at work! Even though it feels awful, the heat of a fever is theorized to both slow the reproduction of certain viruses and actually speed up the movement of immune cells.

Sleep Loss Makes You More Likely to Get Sick

Ideally, your immune system is at the ready to both combat infection and stand down when it needs to. But sleep loss can disrupt the network, making your body more susceptible to illness.

A robust body of research has demonstrated that not sleeping enough will up your risk of infection. One study from Carnegie Melon University proved this link in a somewhat frightening way: after two weeks of sleep-tracking from its subjects, participants took nose drops that contained the rhinovirus (a cause of the common cold).

The results? Those who lost only an hour of sleep per night over the course of a week were a whopping 294% more likely to catch a cold.

Another 2015 study recorded the sleep patterns of 164 adults, then administered rhinovirus the same way. The study found that subjects who had been sleeping less than six hours a night were much more likely to develop a cold than those who slept seven hours or more a night. This was after controlling for a wide variety of factors, including the subjects’ antibody levels before the trial, their health practices, and the season of the year.

The link between sleep loss and a curtailed immune response has even been reported in twins. Scientists looked at blood samples from 11 pairs of identical twins, each of which had contrasting sleep patterns between siblings. They concluded that the twin who was prone to shorter sleep duration had a more depressed immune system. In those twins, certain sequences designed to circulate white blood cells had been shut down.

Sleep Affects Vaccine Efficacy

Think of vaccinations as healthy training for your immune system. They teach your cells to recognize a certain virus, such as the seasonal flu viruses influenza A and B (and, hopefully, in the future, SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19). The cells then have practice at producing the proper antibodies, so they’re better prepared to fend off a real invasion later. However, the negative impact of sleep loss on your immune response also seems to lower the efficacy of vaccines.

Multiple studies have shown that sleep deprivation inhibits the immune system’s antibody response to the flu vaccine. In one study, male subjects who were sleep-deprived produced less than half the amount of antibodies than those who slept well, 10 days after the flu vaccine had been administered. Similar results have been obtained from subjects who received hepatitis A and B vaccines.

Chances Are, Your Team is Already At Risk

It’s worth noting that chronic and consistent sleep deprivation appears to have the most damaging effects on our immune systems. Acute sleep deprivation—an isolated incident, like a single all-nighter—probably won’t cause the same problems.

But in all likelihood, your team isn’t sleeping enough. Americans tend to get less than 7 hours of sleep a night on average, rather than the recommended 8. That hour-long difference is actually quite pernicious, given that a mere 16 minutes of lost sleep can hinder your cognitive function the next day. Additionally, the percentage of people getting less than 6 hours of nightly sleep is on the rise. Couple these stats with the fact that we tend to overestimate the amount of sleep we’re getting, and you can understand the need for concern.

Chronic sleep deprivation is pervasive, and can team up with stress to perpetuate itself. During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, your team’s sleep and immune systems are in more danger than ever.

More Sleep Means a Better Immune Response

Luckily, we know that catching up on sleep reverses the dampening effects on wellbeing. Just as sleep deprivation diminishes your immune system’s capabilities, getting the right amount of sleep can preserve and boost them. This tenet holds true across different scenarios: when you sleep more, you’re less at risk for infection. Your chance of fighting off an infection that you’ve already caught also rises, and your antibody response to vaccines improves.

A Closer Look at How Sleep Influences Your Cells

Sleep seems to have a crucial role in sustaining many parts of the immune system. The connections between sleep and immune responses are so entrenched and complex that scientists don’t yet fully understand all of them—but research tells us that the following factors, at least, are at play.

Additionally, a good night’s sleep promotes circulation of T-cells throughout the body. Researchers theorize that some T-cells may migrate to the lymph nodes and other lymphoid organs during sleep, which prepares them to mobilize in case of infection. Essentially, researchers believe that sleep allows the immune system a chance to regroup.

Sleep Keeps the World Turning in So Many Ways

We’ve proven that catching up on sleep can save employees from disease and all of its undesirable outcomes. But sleep benefits the cognitive and emotional components of wellbeing, too.

Years of research have established that sufficient natural sleep amplifies all of the traits that make knowledge workers high performers. By natural sleep, we mean sleep that goes uninterrupted by artificial or manmade factors, such as electric lighting, noise, or substances such as alcohol and sleep aids. This kind of sleep boosts creativity, empathy, problem-solving abilities, and, of course, energy.

Without sleep, the region of the brain that guides your executive functioning—your higher-order mental skills, such as reasoning and planning—strains to do its work. Your focus drops. Your memory struggles. Your attitude worsens, and stress spikes. As a result, productivity can decrease in measurable ways.

Leaders suffer the same effects, but the consequences are often amplified, as their emotional reactivity and negative mood have a higher chance of spreading to their employees.

On the flipside, people who aren’t sleep-deprived feel more positive, pick up new skills more quickly and achieve more markers of success. In one of our studies, we monitored a Fortune 200 sales team as they worked to improve their sleep. At the end of 5 months, we saw a 50% increase in outbound calls and a 14% increase in overall revenue for the group of sellers using Rise to sleep more.

In light of these results, it’s safe to say that sleep strengthens both the body and the success-oriented mind.

Zooming in on Sleep for Your Team’s Health

As the old proverb goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Channeling your efforts toward improving your team’s sleep habits is a wise way to stave off infection before it has the chance to strike your office. You’ll be protecting your team, and, as one study demonstrated, you could decrease costs due to sickness absence by almost a third.

Another reason why you should prioritize sleep in your fight against workplace illness is that it’s an element within your team members’ control. According to research, the likelihood that an employee becomes ill depends on three kinds of factors: environmental, genetic, and lifestyle.

Genetic factors aren’t able to be tweaked, and although people can exert some control over their environment (via social distancing, for example), the control isn’t anywhere near total. Lifestyle factors, on the other hand, can be adjusted by the individual, and sleep falls into this category.

When it comes to changing sleep habits for your health, we recommend a dual approach.

1. Reduce Your Sleep Debt

Your sleep debt is the total amount of sleep you’ve missed out on over the past two weeks, compared to your body’s sleep requirements. As your sleep debt builds, your brain struggles to perform the tasks that knowledge work demands. But if you monitor and recoup your sleep debt, you can get back on track to becoming a star performer.

2. Manage Your Circadian Rhythm

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s natural inclination toward a sleep time, wake time, and daily energy peaks and dips. Aiming for a consistent sleep and wake time in line with your circadian rhythm is a great way to improve your sleep duration and quality.

Adhering to your circadian rhythm is also essential to your immune system function. The components of your immune system, down to the organs and cells themselves, all have built-in “molecular clock machinery” that helps them to gather for a well-timed immune response. These clocks are synced to your circadian rhythm.

Importantly, if you’re in a state of circadian misalignment, wherein you aren’t hewing to your body’s natural cycle, you can experience many health-related consequences—including an immune system that can’t respond to invaders as effectively.

Actionable Sleep Strategies

If you don’t know where to start in tackling the two goals above, we’ve compiled a list of sleep strategies that constitute great first steps.

  • Set up an ideal sleep environment before you go to bed: temperatures between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, complete darkness, and no noise. Spring for an eye mask and earplugs if you can’t block out the light and/or bothersome sounds.
  • Speaking of light, you should try to avoid screens in the hours before you sleep. Screens produce blue light, which can keep your body from producing the optimal amount of the sleep hormone melatonin. Set your screens aside, or buy blue light-blocking glasses if you can’t give up late-night Netflix binges.
  • Settle into a wind-down period as your bedtime nears. Read, take a bath, relax—save stress-inducing activities for another time.
  • In the morning, get out of bed and perform some light exercise as soon as you can. Basking in the sunlight can also help to convince your body that it’s time to be active.
  • If you’re a coffee-drinker, have your cup as early as possible. The odds of caffeine disrupting your sleep go up as the day progresses.
  • Be as consistent as possible with your sleep and wake times so that you’re lining up with your circadian rhythm. Waking up too late could mean that you miss a valuable window of productive energy.
  • By getting to know your circadian rhythm, you can plan your daily activities at the most appropriate moments—high-stakes, complex tasks around the peaks, and simpler work around the dips. Most people have a morning and evening energy peak, so make them count!

With fear of disease at an all-time high, a lot of dubious claims have surfaced around boosting immunity. And, unfortunately, there’s no guaranteed way to keep your office totally infection-free. But sleep has been scientifically proven to help your immune system in its fight against disease. By supporting your team as they make positive changes to their sleep routines, you’ll be showing them that you put their safety and wellbeing first.