Why companies are willing to pay to make sure you get a good night's sleep

If your boss offered to pay you extra to get a good night's sleep every night, would you take it? One American Health Care company, Aetna, is offering that exact incentive to employees.

For every 20 days that employees achieve seven or more hours of sleep, they receive $US25 ($32), up to a maximum of $US300 ($385) per year.

This begs the question: why are companies suddenly so interested in sleep?

Blurring the boundaries

The changing nature of workplaces means the boundaries between work and life are blurred beyond recognition from 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. Gone are the days when we start work at 8.30am and are packed up and out the door by 5pm. Mobile technology and the age of constant connectivity has created an increased expectation to be 'on' and available around the clock.

But never giving your body a break (especially from technology) has a huge impact on sleep. Blue light from devices limits the natural release of melatonin, which helps you fall and stay asleep, dramatically reducing the quality of sleep and recovery time each night.

However, constant connectivity isn't solely to blame. Expectations to meet deadlines compounded with other factors like travel, social obligations and family, means sleep is usually the first thing to go. I've heard executives boast about how little time they snooze. It's become a competition. If only they knew how much they were short-changing their performance.

Why do you need sleep?

Sleep is a strange and complex process, but essential to keep the brain and body performing at its best. We know sleep helps consolidate learning and memory, but until recently, its importance for other restorative processes has been elusive.

Research from the shows the brain removes toxic waste through the 'glymphatic system', its own unique waste removal system, during sleep . Lose out on sleep and these by-products start to build up, which impairs your thinking and performance. No amount of energy drinks, coffees or sugary treats will reduce this type of mental fog.

What does sleep deprivation do to your body and brain?

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Constantly cutting back on sleep can have disastrous effects on your productivity and health. According to Maria Konnikova, who wrote an on sleep deprivation, only sleeping six hours a night for 12 days straight is the same as being awake for a full 24 hours. And the cognitive and physical performance of someone who's been awake for 24 hours is similar to a person with a high blood alcohol reading.

The impact of sleep deprivation affects everything from attention and concentration to emotional reactions, problem solving skills, and even moral judgment. Professor Peter Cistulli, the director of the Centre for Sleep Health and Research at Royal North Shore Hospital says: "In addition to good nutrition and physical activity, sleep is vital for wellbeing and health. Lack of sleep is analogous to borrowing money from the bank; you accumulate a sleep debt. This sleep debt has variable negative effects on brain, cardiovascular, and metabolic functions until the debt is paid off."

Lack of sleep affects your ability to think laterally, be creative, and learn new skills. All these factors increase presenteeism, which means not just being at work, but actually being effective. In 2011, researchers at the Harvard Medical School estimated sleep deprivation costs US companies $US63.2 million in lost productivity per year.

And that's before taking into account the health implications of too little sleep. Hunger and satiety hormones get disrupted, increasing your risk of obesity, excess cortisol compromises your immune system and makes you age faster, and insulin isn't as effective, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes. It's no wonder companies are encouraging employees to prioritise their activities instead of cutting out sleep.

Quality and quantity of sleep

We've all heard 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night is optimal, but where exactly did this number come from? According to Professor Cistulli, the latest recommendations from the vary according to age with most working adults (18 – 64 years) requiring 7 to 9 hours per night. Cistulli says the top three activities we should all do to promote healthy sleep are:

1) Raise awareness about sleep and the consequences of sleep deprivation.

2) Provide education and a supportive workplace culture and systems.

3) Screen for underlying sleep disorders (e.g. insomnia, sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome) and direct sufferers to appropriate care.

And just before going to bed he recommends to:

1) Establish a bedtime routine and allow enough time each night to achieve sufficient sleep for your age group.

2) Avoid use of electronic media for at least one hour before bed.

3) Avoid late meals, exercise or consumption of stimulants (eg. coffee, tea or energy drinks)

The sleep solution

Emphasising the importance of sleep is a first step towards creating better workplace wellbeing. However, the biggest issue is that sleep is usually an activity outside the office – so how do you create that behaviour change? While Aetna gives monetary incentives and many companies have engaged with wearable technology to promote self-awareness of sleep habits, true change comes with a cultural shift.

If companies really want their employees to sleep more, it means leading by example and putting structures into place that promote balance. This includes reasonable working hours, disconnecting from technology when out of the office, and having respectable deadlines to prevent too many late nights.

Does your organisation encourage employees to have proper, restorative sleep each night? Let us know in the comments section.​

Workplace performance expert Andrew May is a Partner at KPMG Performance Clinic, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He has spent the past 20 years helping business leaders and their teams improve performance, productivity and wellbeing.

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