Sleep health: How to sleep better when working remotely

Lack of sleep affects some of the key cognitive functions we need to be productive and effective, including critical thinking, memory and attention.

Learn how managing the fine line between work from home and living at work is worsening sleep working.

At a glance

  • Australia has recorded some of the longest working hours among full-time employees in OECD countries over the past two decades.
  • The direct and indirect costs of sleep deprivation in Australia are estimated at A$51 billion a year.
  • The Federal Government began to recognise the problem in 2018, and focus on the issue is increasing amid the challenges of remote and flexible working.

Prefer to listen to this story? Here it is in audio format.

By Caroline Zielinski

Sleep deprivation is costing the economy A$14.4 billion in direct losses and A$36.6 billion in non-financial costs, such as the loss of wellbeing.

The Federal Government recognised the scale of the problem in 2018, launching a full-scale inquiry on sleep health awareness.

However, despite the resources directed to the business community and its leaders to educate them about the benefits of a well-rested workforce, many sectors – accounting and finance chief among them – continue to wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honour.

Sleep health and the workplace

Lack of sleep affects some of the key cognitive functions we need to be productive and effective, including critical thinking, memory and attention, says Professor Shantha Rajaratnam, deputy head of the School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University and chair of the Sleep Health Foundation.

“The result of that is that many aspects of our work-related functions and performance are impaired.

“We make poorer decisions, have reduced capacity to solve novel, complex problems, to process information and to regulate our emotional responses to what’s happening around us.”

While Australia is widely regarded as a relaxed and happy-go-lucky nation, research into our changing work habits tells a different story.

Over the past two decades, the average number of full-time hours worked has increased significantly, resulting in Australia having some of the longest working hours among full-time employees in OECD countries.

Psychotherapist Dr Zoë Krupka, senior lecturer at the Cairnmillar Institute in Melbourne, has lived and worked all over the world and says that Australian workplace attitudes towards sleep, especially in industries such as accounting, banking, finance and law, are unhealthy.

“What I’ve noticed is that Australians have similar attitudes towards sleep as they do in North America – it’s all this bravado around not sleeping,” she says, “and we are seeing this distortion in capacity and bravado around overwork specific to sleep.

“People are severely overestimating their capacity when they’re tired,” Krupka says.

“People are often surprised by those tests they do when they’re tired and driving – they’re not aware of how distracted they actually are.”

Switch off for health

Deloitte has been among the workplaces driving the change in attitude around sleep. In October last year, Deloitte ran a campaign aiming to raise awareness about the benefits of sleep by educating employees on the importance of good sleep hygiene and encouraging them to monitor their sleep patterns over the course of a month.

Throughout the campaign staff were provided with information on building good sleep habits, the importance of sleep, the impact technology and other behavioural and lifestyle factors have on sleep, and the potential impacts of sleep on individual productivity.

Deloitte has also been encouraging other businesses to treat sleep as a fundamental business issue, factoring a good night’s rest into productivity incentives.

Corporates hoping to rehabilitate their “always on” culture by throwing money behind the burgeoning “corporate wellness” industry, with its sleeper pods and corporate meditation rooms, already worth A$61.6 million in Australia, will be disappointed.

The only way to combat sleep deprivation and overwork is to work less and to physically switch off at the end of each working day.

This is particularly important with the advent of remote and flexible working environments, where technology and work intrude on our personal lives.

“Having this pressure to respond to work demands outside of working hours makes it more difficult to detach,” says Rebecca Mitchell, associate professor at Macquarie University’s Department of Management.

“What organisations don’t understand is that, if they want to get great work out of people and have them stay long term, they have to allow them to detach from work – to actually leave work, to limit the ‘tele-pressure’ – and to stop seeing sleep as being for ‘sissies’,” she says.

The cost of sleep deprivation

Deloitte, in partnership with the Sleep Health Foundation, has estimated the direct and indirect costs of sleep deprivation to be A$51 billion per year.

Jared Streatfeild, associate director of health economics and social policy at Deloitte Access Economics, says they arrived at the number using the cost of illness framework.

“We use this framework to comprehensively measure the cost of a particular condition, which we can then compare to the impact of other health conditions and the costs of interventions to reduce the burden of a condition,” Streatfeild says.

The report team, which also included Rajaratnam, looked at the economic and health impacts of three particular sleep-related disorders: obstructive sleep apnoea, insomnia and restless leg syndrome, which collectively affect about one in five Australians.

The report then considered the costs impact of sleep disorders, such as absenteeism, early retirement, presenteeism, need for informal caregiving, work accidents due to fatigue and premature mortality, as well as the loss of quality of life.

“It is a challenge to measure productivity in knowledge-based industries objectively,” Rajaratnam concedes, “so we rely on measures such as situationally relevant metrics or self-reported estimates of productivity, peer ratings, or the use of surrogate measures such as using cognitive tests to see how much sleep deprivation is impairing their aspects of cognitive function.”

Wellbeing over wealth

While governments and corporates focus on the figures, they are only part of the picture, experts agree.

“Economists focus on the profit and productivity loss,” Mitchell says, “but what we’re really talking about is real issues affecting real people due to undue stress and lack of sleep.

“The government has a focus on profitability and on looking at sleep as a diagnosable issue, but in reality, if you don’t detach from work and don’t sleep well, your quality of life will suffer,” she says. “You can cope with a lot if you have the opportunity to recover, and sleep is critical to that recovery process.”

Krupka points out that “economic arguments don’t always make sense, either”.

“Plenty of evidence shows that working less, being less busy and sleeping more are the best ways to actually be more creative, productive and efficient, yet we continue to think that only programs driven by economics arguments will cost less.

“It’s culturally intolerable for us to be bored, to do nothing, yet if we don’t rest and sleep, we become much more reactive, and it becomes much harder for our bodies to tell the difference between what is urgent – everything becomes anxiety provoking.

“Like the road signs say, only sleep cures fatigue,” she says.

Related: 7 ways you can create a positive sleep culture

Expert tips for better sleep

  • Keep a regular bedtime and wake time each day, even on weekends. Routine is key.
  • Limit your screen time and give yourself a one hour “no tech” buffer before bed.
  • Take care of your body – keep up daily exercise and avoid using alcohol as a sleep aid.
  • Take care of your mind, and try to resolve any issues long in advance of bedtime. If you are still feeling anxious or worried at bedtime, try some gentle stretching, yoga or mindfulness.
  • Keep your bedroom reserved for sleep – as much as possible avoid working, watching TV or using your laptop in your bedroom.
  • If you wake up during the night and can’t fall back asleep, get up and do something relaxing in dim light until you feel sleepy again.
    Source: Dr Melinda Jackson, senior lecturer in psychology, Monash University

Other financial costs of sleep deprivation

Aside from the costs incurred for the treatment of ill health due to sleep deprivation, other financial costs associated with sleep disorders and attributable conditions were A$13.4 billion in 2019-2020. A breakdown of some of these costs is given below.

  • A$7.5 billion: Presenteeism losses
  • A$2.2 billion: Absenteeism losses
  • A$1 billion: Reduced employment
  • A$0.3 billion: Informal care costs
  • A$0.2 billion: Premature mortality costs
    Source: Sleep Health Foundation

Sleep self-assessment

If you answer “yes” to more than four of these questions, you may be sleep deprived.

  1. Do you feel tired when you wake up?
  2. Does it take you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night?
  3. Do you wake up during the night and have trouble going back to sleep?
  4. Do you feel that your sleep is affecting your daytime functioning (alertness, job performance, etc)?
  5. Have you or others noticed you are more irritable or emotional?
  6. If you did not set an alarm, would you sleep past your set wake-up time?
  7. Are you using sleep medication or over-the-counter sleep aids more than you would like?
  8. Do you snore heavily or suffer from sleep apnoea?

December/January 2022
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