Tired of feeling tired? Employers can help

Rebecca Weitzel

Have you ever put off sleep to knock out just one more item on your to-do list? If so, your choice likely backfired. It turns out our brains have lists of their own that can only be tackled while we’re asleep. Robbing our brains of enough time to perform these tasks not only impedes our ability to complete our daytime responsibilities effectively and efficiently, but also harms our health.

What items are on our brain’s to-do list while we snooze? According to a growing body of research from the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California Berkeley, here are some of the most essential:

Sort memories into separate bins labeled “important” and “useless,” then cement the former and recycle the latter to optimize the human operating system.

Turn on the cerebral sewage system to flush toxic proteins and prevent the buildup linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Preserve and protect our anti-cancer immune cells and repair DNA to reduce the risk of developing breast, colorectal and lung cancers.

Reboot the cardiovascular system by lowering heart rate and blood pressure to slash the risk of a fatal heart attack.

Regulate hormones linked to appetite and daytime cravings to reduce the risk of weight gain.

Replenish mental and physical capacity to allow for up to 16 hours of high levels of performance, focus and productivity the next day.

Given such an important list of tasks, why do we routinely dismiss the importance of sleep — or worse, brag about how we can get by on just four hours of sleep. Much of our attitude about sleep is tied to a culture that values hard work and spurns perceived laziness. But equating sleep with idleness reveals a disconnection between our perception of sleep and how important it really is to well-being.

This chasm between the perception and reality of sleep is an area in which employers can swoop in as heroes to rescue people. With the National Safety Council finding that 63 percent of Americans report their sleep needs aren’t met during the week — as well as those who believe their sleep needs are met even when they’re not — employers enjoy a unique opportunity to set the record straight and influence behavior. By influencing workers, employers create a ripple effect that benefits businesses, community health, children and our health care system. This heroic effort involves a three-pronged approach:

First, educate your employees about sleep. Start with a campaign to teach them how much is enough. Almost all experts agree seven to eight hours is ideal for adults. Children and teen-agers need more. Our sleep requirements remain about the same as we age, although common barriers to good sleep tend to arise. That includes the use of certain medications and decreases in physical activity.

Second, encourage evidence-based sleep-promoting tactics — daily exercise, regular bedtimes, daily exposure to sunlight, resisting the snooze button and avoiding caffeine or alcohol in the evening. A note about alcohol: It’s a sedative, not a sleep aid. While you might fall asleep more quickly after imbibing, you’re not inducing restorative sleep. You might also create workplace promotions with such rules of thumb as a tech curfew in which individuals commit to ditching their devices at least an hour before bedtime.

Third, take an inventory of the ways in which your organization’s culture, environment, job demands, schedules, shifts and unwritten rules could be improved to enhance the ability of employees to get adequate rest and sleep. Helpful interventions to consider include ensuring employees work no more than 10 hours a day or 50 hours a week. Create a culture that expects and rewards sufficient breaks, especially for workers in physically or cognitively demanding jobs. Establish a policy that gives shift workers a minimum of 12 hours between shifts to recover. Offer remote work options to reduce long commutes. Encourage leaders to share how they prioritize sleep. Build sleep education into your safety and wellness programs.

Just imagine the collective improvements in your business and our community if more workers gave their brains the necessary time to perform the essential nightly tasks of repair and rejuvenation.

Still not convinced? Perhaps you should sleep on it.