Nowadays, many of us live by the slogan of “Work hard, play hard!” in this hyperconnected, 24/7 world. However, the new life maxim I would like to propose to live by is “Work hard, play hard, sleep hard.” A maxim not only much-needed for individuals, but also critical for organizations.

We are not sleeping enough.

We are currently witnessing a global sleep deprivation epidemic:

35% of people sleep less than 6 hours a night… while most people need between 7 to 9 hours.

48% of people have trouble falling or staying asleep at least 1 night a week — that’s almost half of the people reading this blog.

Clearly we’re not getting the sleep that we need. Although the specific reasons for our sleep deprivation differ from individual to individual, there is a common theme I often hear from my clients: “I want to get the most out of life and there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do all I want to do”. Whether the time is reserved for work or family or personal time, sleep is not at the top of our priority list and often gets deprioritized under pressure. However, to get most out of life, sleep needs to be reprioritized, both by individuals and companies.

Sleep deprivation costs U.S. companies more than $63 billion every year.

A Harvard study found that in the U.S. alone, companies are losing $63 billion each year due to sleep-deprived employees. This is partially due to the lack of awareness around the prevalence and consequences of chronic sleep deprivation:

First, it impacts our physical and mental health:

  • Sleep deprivation increases the chances of developing a burnout, depression, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and even cancer, to name just a few.

Second, it affects our safety:

  • When someone is fatigued, the risk of an accident increases by 70% — in the U.S. more people are killed by drowsy driving than drunk driving
  • Already 40 minutes of sleep loss leads to a dramatic rise in amount and severity of work injuries

Third, our productivity suffers:

  • Sleep loss leads to lower engagement, poor decision making and it reduces creativity and problem-solving skills.
  • For each sleep-deprived employee, an organization loses over 11 days per year in productivity
  • This is not surprising, as someone who’s been awake for roughly 20 hours performs similarly to someone who is legally drunk (having a blood alcohol level of 0.1%).

Why companies should act to fight sleep deprivation

While programs centered on work-life balance and employee health and well-being are gaining traction in the workplace to increase productivity and engagement, reduce absenteeism and decrease health care costs, the topic of sleep is often still missing from such programs. Sleep deprivation is, at one level, obviously, a personal issue and part of a larger wellbeing and productivity challenge that also includes mental relaxation, healthy nutrition and physical activity. However, in an increasingly connected world, in which many companies now expect their employees to be on call and to answer emails and be available well beyond traditional working hours, sleep is an important topic to be brought up in the workplace.

I argue that sleep should be the number one priority for companies to cover in their health and well-being programs, because it directly increases the effectiveness of all other health efforts: The better we sleep, the healthier we eat, the more we move or exercise and the better we cope with stress. Many employees are unaware that they are getting insufficient sleep and assume constantly being tired is normal. This group isn’t likely to seek out the help of a sleep psychologist (let alone have easy access to one) therefore education through the employer might be the best chance at improve their sleep, their health and thus, also their performance.

Improving employees’ sleep is a win-win situation for both the employer and the employee. Employees will improve their physical and mental health, in addition to being more productive. Beyond a direct impact on productivity, an employer will also benefit from lower absenteeism and lower healthcare costs. These effects trickle down — for example, research has shown that when leaders get good sleep, their teams are more engaged. On the other hand, the employee will enjoy work (and life) more as sleep directly impacts our mood and our emotional reactivity.

Considering so many of us regard “being happy and fulfilled” a major life goal, it’s puzzling why we cut down on sleep when it’s in fact a direct driver of our daily happiness. Therefore, I am very excited about Thrive Global putting sleep on the agenda at some of the largest organizations in the world, leading to employees being healthier, more productive and happier. So please join me in living by and spreading the much-needed new maxim “Work hard, play hard, sleep hard.”

Els van der Helm, PhD is a sleep expert and advisor and founder of Shleep — The sleep company.

Shleep serves clients around the world and helps improve their health, performance and happiness through advice on sleep. Shleep’s corporate programs provide digital training, personalized assessments, sleep education through tailored workshops, individual and group sleep consultations and policy recommendations to achieve improved health, leadership, effectiveness and engagement.

Prior to founding Shleep, Els worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. There she combined her passion for leadership development and sleep management. She developed and facilitated training programs for both McKinsey consultants and clients.

She has extensively researched sleep at the Netherlands Institute for Neurosciences and Harvard Medical School and holds a PhD in Psychology from University of California, Berkeley, where she was as a Fulbright scholar. Her research resulted in peer-reviewed articles in Current Biology, PLoS One, Psychological Bulletin, SLEEP, PNAS and several book chapters. Most recently she published on sleep and leadership in the McKinsey Quarterly and Harvard Business Review.

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