UK: Are We Sleeplessly Walking Into Poor Mental Health?

Last Updated: 29 July 2019
Article by Lana Neil and Clare Prower

Most Read Contributor in UK, July 2019

Sleep deprivation and its impact on employee performance

What does an employee's good night's sleep have to do with their employer? In some ways the answer is perfectly obvious – a tired employee will not be performing optimally and if the situation persists may in turn affect team and even company performance. But whilst the effects of sleep deprivation are fairly clear, the factors that contribute to it may not be quite so well known.

There is a growing awareness of how fundamental adequate sleep is to our well-being. But many people struggle to sleep really well. Why is this? We have explored the science behind sleep and how it can affect us with Dr Guy Meadows from the Sleep School, who has studied the effects of sleep deprivation and the factors that can contribute to poor sleep. Dr Meadows has investigated and dispelled the widely held but incorrect belief that a person who does not get enough sleep during the working week can simply catch up at the weekend.

Why our beloved lie-in may be letting us down

'Sleep debt' is a scientifically recognised state. It is a term used to describe cumulative sleep loss resulting from restricted periods of sleep. Scientific research shows that a long lie-in on the weekend will not 'repay' a sleep debt. Instead, our bodies experience 'social jetlag', which can have an adverse impact on mental health and functionality. A long lie-in shifts our bodies' biological processes including hormone production and growth and repair – putting our sleep-wake timing out of sync. This results in them being active and inactive at the wrong times during the day, leading to symptoms akin to jet lag experienced after a long-haul flight. Research suggests we should instead be repaying any sleep debt in smaller, incremental chunks – increasing the amount of sleep we have each night by as little as 15 minutes, for example.

If an employee is the first one at his/her desk and the last to leave...

...their performance at work may be suffering. Studies show that, on average, being awake for more than 16 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05% owing to decreased concentration. After 19 hours, that figure doubles to 0.1%. To put this into perspective, the legal driving limit in the UK is 0.08%.

Where employers can make a difference

Sometimes long working hours are necessary to complete urgent work, complete a project or deal with an unexpected surge in demand. In some workplaces however long hours become habitual and presenteeism takes hold. Overwork or excessive hours in the office with insufficient time in the day to undertake activities that promote relaxation and winding down can, over time, contribute significantly to sleep disruption.

Employers who want to know that their employees are working optimally have a vested interested in avoiding the effects of poor sleep. But there is also a legal framework to consider. The Health and Safety at Work Act requires employers to maintain a safe working environment and ensure that operations within it are conducted safely. In parallel, the Working Time Regulations set out a framework of requirements for daily and weekly rest periods, as well as a 48-hour limit on the amount of time spent working each week.

Employees can be asked to opt out of the 48 hour weekly working limit and in some organisations are routinely asked to do so. But is that the best approach? A long-hours culture could be making a significant contribution to sleep debt and poor quality sleep in some individuals. Ultimately it could be the balance sheet that suffers. In discharging legal obligations could employers be doing more to safeguard their staff, to make sure they are well-rested rather than sleep-deprived – not only to provide a safe working environment but, as the research shows, to address 'sleep debt' and all its consequences?

Prioritise mental health

Employers' health and safety obligations extend to mental as well as physical health. It may come as no surprise that chronic sleep deprivation is recognised as a core symptom of mental health difficulties. Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter in our brain regulating our mood (often replenished during sleep) is the same chemical involved in the regulation of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour body clock) and in the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. This means that disrupted sleep can lead to a low mood and vice versa.

The European and UK legal framework should, in theory at least, promote good employee health and sensible management of working time and thus benefit both employer and employees. A recent decision of the European Court of Justice1 has gone further by suggesting that employers should be operating a system of recording actual daily working time for workers in order to ensure that they are receiving the rest breaks and daily and weekly rest periods that the Working Time Directive requires.

There is considerable uncertainty about the application of this decision to the UK's rules on working time (which will in part depend on our future relationship with the EU), but it raises interesting practical questions about how employers can monitor working hours effectively without intruding upon their employees' privacy. What continues to be the case is that employers should be wary of ignoring signs that their employees are working too hard or too long – there is clear evidence of a link between a long hours culture, disrupted sleep and poor mental health with all that that entails for employer who want the best from their employees.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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