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Columbia Business Monthly

How exhausted workers could be costing your business money

By Dustin Waters

Another cup of coffee, another hour of overtime, another restless night before waking up to do it all over again. For too long, success and hard work were held synonymous with a lack of sleep. And while researchers are well aware of the health effects caused by sleep deprivation, many employers fail to see how an exhausted workforce affects the bottom line. 

“We see that a lot in our clinic, people who are really busy and shift workers who feel like they can work all night long and then go out and mow the grass and pick up kids from school, and they're really not chiseling out their sleep time,” says Dr. Andrea Rinn, who works with patients suffering from sleep disorders at the Medical University of South Carolina. “It's a very common problem. In fact, the most common cause of daytime sleepiness in the U.S. is sleep deprivation. It's a modifiable problem if we can recognize it as such.”

For her patients at the sleep clinic, Rinn recommends between seven to nine hours of sleep every night. One way to achieve this is by setting a routine and sticking to it. That means going to bed at the same time every night and waking up on time every day. Stop napping. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can disrupt sleep. Another common problem is avoiding activities that are mentally stimulating around bedtime—this means phones and TVs.

“For an employer, some of the tips that I would say are making sure that they have adequate staffing, so that their personnel are not overworked or over stressed,” says Rinn. “Another tip for an employer would be paying close attention to scheduling, making sure that people aren't on shift work that is not sustainable, limiting their ability to get an adequate amount of sleep on a night-to-night basis. Work environment is important.”

For decades, Dr. June Pilcher at Clemson University has studied the effects that sleep can have on workplace performance. One study published in 2007 recruited Clemson students to remain awake overnight, while they were asked to complete a series of tasks to measure their vigilance and cognitive ability. Even during just one night without rest, participant performance on tasks requiring controlled attention decreased. 

Another experiment conducted by Pilcher required participants to remain awake for a 28-hour period while their language performance was examined. Noting a significant decrease in reading comprehension, the findings suggest that “sustained work conditions and sleep deprivation negatively affect some types of language performance.”

Clemson researchers also examined the effects that working a 12-hour shift had on nurses’ decision-making process at a Southeast hospital. Participants were presented with scenarios describing the conditions of hypothetical patients and asked how likely they would be to call a physician. In addition to finding a significant decrease in average alertness among nurses, researchers also found major changes in the judgment policies used to evaluate the hypothetical patients. 

At Prisma Health, the largest not-for-profit health organization in South Carolina, Marlee White serves as the manager of business health programming and screening services. This means White and her team focus not only on the well-being of their own workers, but on the overall health of the businesses they serve. 

“We have several engagement packages that we offer, and depending on that, we have a team that goes on site to the companies and provides a wellness screening, which is a blood draw and a biometric assessment,” says White. “We also offer a health assessment, asking employees about their overall health, and we roll all that up into a report for that employee on an individual level and also for the employer at the group level. They can see where their gaps are, and if able, we fill in those gaps to provide education or support, and if not, we help find people that can.”

In their Columbia-area offices, Prisma offers rejuvenation rooms for employees where they can spend a few moments in peace and quiet. White recommends that other businesses locate and identify quiet spaces for workers as an easy and inexpensive way to improve their wellbeing. 

“We work with a lot of manufacturing companies. They're working on deadlines. We have a lot of employees out on the line, working really hard, and it's easy for them to stay for that overtime pay. It's easy for employers to forget that if they're staying here working too many hours, they're not taking care of themselves and are not going to be their most productive,” says White. “We hear that from employees, and we bring that feedback back to their leadership team. We try to provide them with suggestions on things like policy changes. At Prisma, our nursing staff has policies regarding how long the nurses can work a shift, so even though they have 12-hour shifts, they can't work over 16 hours in a 24-hour time period because we want them to be well rested so they can take the best care of their patients.”

With advancements in technology, many employees now find themselves having trouble disconnecting from their work when off the clock. White recommends challenging employees to not only make it a habit to disconnect from the outside world during work hours, but also unplugging from the working world when at home. 

“Have a defined line of when you’re at work and when you’re at home because if you don't, you ever get that true time to recharge so that you're ready for the next work day,” White says. “We hear that a lot with flexible and remote working. People have a really hard time finding that line, so for us as wellness coaches, we talk to a lot of people about that.”

While the health benefits of adequate sleep are obvious for employees, a well-rested workforce also poses some advantages for employers. In addition to a more focused, more productive staff, businesses can also avoid losing workers due to burnout. 

“One of the biggest things that we hear from the employers is retention. The employers that have our services on site, employees there really see it as a huge benefit of working there,” says White. “We look at pay, but we also look at benefits, having somebody that cares about them, somebody that's able to help them manage their health. We hear from employers that if we can make a difference for one employee, then it's been worth the investment.” 

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