Hand washing, social distancing and working from home are all contributing to the fight against the coronavirus, but sleep expert Dr Els van der Helm says employers shouldn't underestimate the value of sleep in keeping employees healthy during the pandemic. "The rampant spread of Covid-19 calls for us to focus on an immune system booster that is frequently ignored – sleep," she says. "Recent scientific studies have shown that sleep loss leads to an immediate decline in our immune system's ability to fight off viruses and bacteria, as well as our recovery after infection."
Van der Helm is adjunct professor at IE Business School in Madrid and the co-founder/CEO of Shleep which helps companies boost performance, productivity and engagement by improving their employees' sleep using a digital coaching platform. Her company is providing sleep coaching and tips on managing sleep during times of change to organisations as part of their Covid-related employee wellbeing programmes.
Good sleep equals good business, Van der Helm says, because healthy sleep patterns are linked to less stress, burnout and anxiety, reduced health problems, fewer errors and accidents at work and faster response times. “Employees are sleeping less and less,” she says. “In 1942, less than 8 per cent of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep per night; in 2018, it’s almost 50 per cent of the population. We know from our own data at Shleep that many employees are chronically sleep deprived – that is not getting the amount of sleep they need on a regular basis and building up what we call a sleep debt across a regular work week.
“We have found that the level of sleep debt is directly correlated with both perceived stress levels as well as performance at work. Focusing on ways to lower sleep debt will lead to not only better mental health, but also better to performance. What’s more, the special circumstances employees are in right now due to Covid could offer a unique opportunity to ‘pay off’ their built-up sleep debt and get back to a healthier and more productive sleep balance.”
Van der Helm points to two Covid-associated phenomena having an impact on people’s sleep. The first is the loneliness of working from home. The second is using one’s bedroom as an office. “Self-reported loneliness has been linked to worse sleep quality while active socialising is associated with better sleep quality,” she says. “For good sleep, it is recommended that the bedroom is used solely for sleep and sex. However, some employees will likely be using their bedroom as their home office space now. This can significantly disrupt their sleep by bringing work stress into the bedroom and decreasing the healthy association we need between the bedroom and sleep.”
In May 2019, the WHO officially recognised burnout as a legitimate “occupational syndrome”. In the past, it had described it as a state of vital exhaustion, but in 2019 the emphasis was changed to attribute the syndrome to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Burnout is typically characterised by exhaustion, feeling removed from your work and reduced professional effectiveness and it seems to be on the increase as a result of the pandemic.
Research from the global recruiter Robert Walters published last month, Burning the Candle: Strategies to Combat Workplace Burnout, found that nearly half of Irish managers believe their employees are at risk of burnout. More than a third of Irish employees say their mental health has suffered during Covid-19 because of working longer hours and 87 per cent have felt under pressure to be more productive while working remotely in order to prove the case for continuing to working from home in a post-Covid environment.
For those experiencing Covid-related overload Dr van der Helm has three tips
“In a recent Gallup survey of over 7,500 employees, an astounding 67 per cent of employees have had to deal with burnout at some point at work. This is why sleep is incredibly important and should be a priority for employers when it comes to employee wellbeing,” says Van der Helm. “It’s simple math. Sleep is key to burnout prevention with studies showing that insufficient sleep is one of the main risk factors in developing burnout and that sleep deprivation leads to 15 times higher risk of developing it. And if you are already suffering from a clinical burnout problem, improving your sleep can help you recover enough to return to work.”
For those experiencing Covid-related overload Van der Helm has three tips. Her first is to adopt and commit to clear start and stop times for work. “What we’ve seen is that work and private life become completely blurred without clear boundaries,” she says. “People tend to work much later, resulting in a later bedtime and lack of sleep. Secondly, have a structured routine that suits your work-from-home life. A rhythm that includes mundane tasks such as getting up, dressing up, eating and sleeping at regular hours takes a load off the amygdala, an area of the brain that processes emotions and is susceptible to stressful events.
“My third tip might seem laughably simple, but it is incredibly effective in reducing your stress levels across the day, resulting in deeper, more restorative sleep: relax. Take breaks throughout the day – simply leave your workspace and get your mind off current tasks by going for a walk or doing a quick relaxation exercise. Preferably you leave your phone out of it.”