How to help an employee suffering with sleep deprivation

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Health Assured team

18 November 2019

Sleep. We don’t fully understand why we need it, but we do. Some need more than others, but we all feel the effects when we don’t get enough.

Sleep deprivation and work are linked. We don’t mean that work causes it, but a lack of sleep reduces your ability to think clearly, make informed decisions and even assess risk.


What is chronic sleep deprivation?

It’s where an individual doesn’t have enough sleep. A chronic lack of sleep can lead to serious fatigue, which can lead to productivity drops at work and more serious consequences.

The condition is also known as “insufficient sleep”.


How much sleep should employees aim for?

The average human adult needs around seven hours or more sleep a night to refresh themselves. If you don’t get enough sleep, you begin to suffer.

And if you find it hard to get enough sleep over a period of months, then the issue is chronic.

If you sleep for six hours every night, then over a period of a week, that’s an entire night’s sleep lost. It all adds up very quickly. Sleep deprivation symptoms can range from mild to serious.

In an office, these might not be so bad—but for a warehouse worker, who works physically hard and is more likely to be tired, some of these short term effects of sleep deprivation can be very dangerous indeed:

  • Yawning
  • Moodiness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Difficulty taking on board new ideas
  • Forgetfulness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Lack of motivation
  • Clumsiness
  • Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
  • Reduced sex drive

The signs of severe sleep deprivation—that is, in someone getting less than four hours of sleep a night—can be much worse:

  • Emotional instability
  • Delirium
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucination
  • Death (in the most extreme and rare cases—such as fatal familial insomnia)

It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, given how sleep deprivation affects the brain and body:

  • During sleep, your heart vessels heal and rebuild, and processes are set in motion that regulate blood pressure. A lack of sleep stops these processes from having an effect and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. It also affects the respiratory system.
  • The production of certain hormones is affected by a lack of sleep, and in extreme cases can cause growth hormone imbalances.
  • Your immune system is strengthened during sleep, and not sleeping well means longer recovery times and more likelihood of chronic illness.
  • Without enough sleep, you’ll begin to suffer ‘microsleeps’—brief periods of unconsciousness often lasting a few seconds or less. This is extremely dangerous when driving, or operating heavy equipment.


What causes sleep deprivation?

There are many potential reasons:

  • Illness can make sleep difficult to come by, especially illness that affects the breathing. Sleep deprivation and depression are linked—poor mental health can make sleep impossible for many. According to various pieces of research, the relationship between anxiety and sleep deprivation is bidirectional. This means just as issues related to sleep deprivation can sometimes cause anxiety, issues relating to anxiety could also cause sleeplessness. So in other words, lack of sleep is considered one of the main contributors to anxiety problems and vice versa.
  • Disorders like apnoea, periodic limb movement and heavy snoring cause sleep disturbance.
  • Certain medications, particularly those used to treat attention deficit disorders, can cause insomnia.
  • The sleep environment is a big factor—too loud, too quiet, too hot or too cold and some people will find it impossible to drift off.
  • Some people simply don’t realise that they’re not sleeping enough and choose to stay up late, fighting through the grogginess.


Are there any ways to help with sleep deprivation?

It’s a fairly sensitive subject to broach when an employee is clearly not getting enough sleep.

You might feel like you’re encroaching a little too far into their home life, or there might be some deep issues that you’re not ready to deal with. But there are ways to help in a sensitive manner.

  • Offering flexibility is a good start. Some people are naturally terrible in the mornings, or have kids to drop off at school—starting work even an hour later could make all the difference.
  • Monitor workloads, and ask during catch-ups if they feel they can cope. Limit overtime, and encourage frequent breaks.
  • Try to cut down on caffeine in the office. A lot of people rely on coffee to get through the day, and this is disruptive to good sleep—water is best.
  • Use and promote an employee assistance programme (EAP)—these offer support and advice on a wide range of issues, and sometimes a lack of sleep is due to something you’re not going to be able to help with. Trained counsellors and well-written online advice are more likely to make a positive impact on someone truly struggling.

If you have questions about the topics raised in this article, Health Assured is here to help. Contact our expert advisors today on 0844 892 2493.

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