Sleep has always been a key factor for good physical and mental health. Despite the attention that it has garnered in recent years, organisations still have much to do when it comes to implementing a culture that encourages and rewards sleep. A big part of this can perhaps be attributed to the assumption that sleep is largely a very personal matter that employers have very little to do with. While there may be some truth to that statement, work cultures do actually affect our sleeping habits in more significant ways than we think. In Singapore specifically, this manifests in the form of an ‘always-on’ society. Coupled with the widespread use and ubiquity of the latest technologies, these existing cultural norms continue to undermine our ability to get regular, good quality sleep. But what exactly does this mean for us? How do these societal factors affect us individually and as a team? Let’s dive deeper into understanding how having a sleep-deprived workforce can undermine our performance at work, before discussing some ways that employers can turn the tide by creating a culture that prioritises sleep.
Causes of irregular sleep
The ‘always-on’ culture has always been a part of working life for some of us. Recently, this phenomenon has been growing in prominence due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to work-from-home arrangements. You may have heard some mention of it in recent discussions about chronic stress. We have also discussed the effects of how it directly contributes to the growing phenomena of absenteeism and presenteeism, which further affects our productivity, physical health as well as mental health. However, one aspect that seems to be commonly overlooked is how this ‘always on’ culture affects our sleep.
For those unaware, the rise of an ‘always-on’ culture implies that people have a tendency to be connected to their work, social contacts and news feeds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As such, many people often work beyond their official working hours, leaving themselves with less time for rest and relaxation. The prevalence of this work culture also feeds into a societal mindset which romanticises busyness as a sign of importance and worth. As a result, employees put sleep on the back burner to meet their deadlines and KPIs. While such behaviour might seem praiseworthy, it is a poor and unsustainable strategy that might prove to be potentially dangerous in the long run.
What is even more worrying is the sheer prevalence of this phenomenon. Our report on the impact of stress-related conditions found that 80% of people in Asia work in an ‘always on’ environment1. Singapore, in particular, trails far behind other major cities for work-life balance, with a recent survey ranking Singapore as the second most overworked city out of 40 others2. Coupled with stressful periods such as the ongoing pandemic and even the upcoming holiday season, more and more of us may fall victim to erratic sleep patterns or even insomnia. In turn, the sleep deprivation causes us to binge sleep on weekends or holidays as a way to make up for the sleep deficit. All this gradually contributes to irregular sleeping habits that worsen our sleep quality and work-life balance, kickstarting a vicious cycle that will be hard to break out of.
Consequences of irregular sleep
Doctors and psychiatrists here in Singapore have pointed out that sleep-related issues have been a growing problem that has gone under the radar thus far. This points to a larger issue at hand as, 9 out of 10 times, insomnia is a symptom of other underlying mental health issues3. Additionally, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to many leading health issues, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer4.
From an organisational perspective, a lack of sleep has direct impacts on workplace performance. We have recently discussed, for one, how sleep is critical to our overall performance and well-being, as well as how telecommuting can affect it. On a broader level, sleep deprivation has negative implications for everything from a person’s body, mind and spirit, to their emotions, temperament and self-control5. When we function on insufficient sleep, we tend to be moodier and emotionally unstable, which is, in turn, tied to greater levels of aggression and forgetfulness6. Similarly, our ability to learn, concentrate and retain information is also greatly impacted by how well-rested we are7. Some preliminary research even goes one step further in suggesting that individuals who lack sufficient sleep are more prone to isolating and unethical behaviour8. Either way, the information that is available to us paints a comprehensive picture of the debilitating effects that sleep deprivation has on our health and our work performance.
Promoting a culture that encourages and rewards sleep
The many negative consequences of a lack of sleep highlight how important having good, consistent sleep is to all of us. When we awaken at a consistent time every day, our brain gradually acclimates to the sleep cycle in preparation for us to feel rested and alert at our wake-up time. This means that you fall asleep easier, sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed. This goes a long way in preventing the negative effects of irregular and poor sleep that was mentioned in the previous section. In turn, it means that employees are healthier, sharper and more productive in the workplace.
This then begs the question: What can employers do to encourage employees to sleep better? This might seem like something that is beyond the influence of the employer, given that sleep is mostly done at night and after work. However, there are various actions that employers can take to promote and reward a “sleep-first” culture. We have split them into four main categories, namely - committing to official policy changes, investing in workplace facilities, rewarding employees, as well as inspiring behavioural changes.
Firstly, official policy changes can be made to prevent employees from working after hours. These policies should aim at cutting down on work-related communications, such as emails, video calls or online messaging after working hours. The goal of this is to limit an employee’s ability to work after business hours, preventing them from working late into the night and affording them time to wind down, relax their minds and prepare for a good night’s sleep. Furthermore, it would also reduce their exposure to blue light and promote better sleep. Around the world, countries and companies have begun adopting such policies with the same goal in mind. For instance, a law was recently passed in France that requires businesses with more than 50 employees to have fixed “off-work” hours. During these times, employees cannot send or respond to emails9. These are examples that we can follow and adapt to our own companies to encourage our employees to have better quality sleep.
Tangible benefits are another great way for employees to promote better sleeping habits. One of the most common examples is the widespread use of nap rooms in companies around the world. Providing nap rooms or similar spaces can do wonders for employees who are reliant on naps for a quick productivity boost. When employers invest in such facilities by equipping them with blankets and comfortable furniture, it also sends a message that the company takes these well-being practices seriously. To go one step further, employers can also consider engaging in aromatherapy or dawn simulators to promote better naps. The latter awaken users by gently increasing levels of light and sound, which can help us feel more refreshed rather than groggy upon waking.
Of course, the benefits do not always have to be so excessive in nature. It can be as simple as ensuring that existing workspaces have ample natural light. Giving our employees the ability to adjust the light in their environment can help regulate their circadian rhythms which responds to the natural day-night cycle. For instance, staying in a dimly lit room all day can cause us to feel sleepy during the day and even less so during the night. Simply having the option to alter the brightness of our workspace can therefore make a huge difference for those of us who were unable to do so previously.
Beyond these physical changes to the workplace, employers can also create programmes that reward employees for getting ample sleep. Depending on your budget and other relevant circumstances, these incentives could be either tangible or intangible in nature. For instance, companies can offer a small financial incentive for employees every time they manage seven hours of sleep at night. Other reward options can be intangible, coming in the form of CSR donations or flexible working arrangements. No matter what the incentive is, these rewards should at least encourage more employees to have more rest at night.
Finally, employers can inspire inherent behavioural changes in their employees. An excellent way to start is by utilising a sleep pledge. This is simply a commitment made by employees to go to bed at a fixed hour to ensure that they get sufficient sleep. Behavioural science research has found that when individuals publicly and explicitly commit to a specific course of action, they are more likely to follow through with it10. You can even encourage your employees to do this as a team, as making this a common goal would help provide extra motivation for your employees to stick to their pledge. In general, these goals should be small but specific, so that they can be easily followed for the agreed duration. One easy example could be having your employees turn off their devices and get into bed by a certain hour. This course of action can also be used in tandem with the incentives mentioned in the previous section to reinforce better sleeping habits.
As working life becomes more hectic, the rise of the ‘always-on’ culture seems inevitable. However, it seems that a large and essential part of this cultural shift is due to employers putting more emphasis and rewarding employees for working longer hours. In some cultures, it has even gotten to a point where sleep is often regarded as either a “necessary inconvenience” or, worse, only for “lightweights”. In truth, the negative effects that a lack of sleep has on every individual is far too severe and damaging to be ignored. Working overtime or late into the evening should not be perceived as a badge of honour, nor should it be something to be bragged about. As such, these are precisely the types of attitudes that will need to shift before an institutional change can fully be realised. While the recommendations that were offered in this article would go a long way in encouraging employees to sleep better, it is also important to understand the rationale of doing so. By communicating the “why” behind sleep-first initiatives, we can begin shifting away from an ‘always-on’ culture to one that recognises and values the importance of a good night’s sleep.
1. Cigna (2019). Chronic Stress: Are we reaching health system burn out?.
2. Kisi. (2020). Best Cities for Work-Life Balance 2020. Getkisi.com
3. Liu, V. (2020). Having sleepless nights during the coronavirus pandemic? Here's why. The Straits Times.
4. Walker, M. (2018). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.
5. Deloitte. (2020). You snooze, you win. Deloitte Insights.
6. Walker, M. (2018). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.
7. Jenkins, J., & Dallenbach, K. (1924). Obliviscence during Sleep and Waking.
8. Barber, L., & Budnick, C. (2016). Sleep and Unethical Behavior.
9. Morris, D. (2017). New French Law Bars Work Email After Hours. Fortune.
10. Cialdini, R. (2014). Influence: Science and Practice. Pearson.