Unfortunately, our 24-hour modern working world views sleep as an inconvenience; an impingement on productivity. A stigma continues to surround it. That the issue of sleep has become almost as taboo as mental health is astonishing; one study revealed how two-thirds of UK business leaders deemed sleep to be the sole responsibility of the individual. Equally, nearly as many employees felt that to even flag sleep as a problem affecting work was tantamount to career suicide. As a society we have been compelled to deny or repress our natural, human impulses to sleep as if we’re competing with and proving our worth against indefatigable machines. To yield to sleep is like admitting one’s shortcomings and fallibility.
Thankfully, the tides are turning. The discourses around sleep and work are slowly increasing, in part catalysed by annual campaigns like ‘Sleeptember’. This has given vital occasion for both businesses and individuals to consider preserving – what has ultimately become – a scarce and precious commodity. But the repercussions of sleep deprivation and night shift work on individual health, businesses, the public health system and the wider economy, as evidenced by myriad scientific and qualitative studies, is so large that the issue at hand warrants more airtime than just the seasonal debate allows. The so-called ‘sleep epidemic’ that continues to pervade UK workforces calls for urgent institutional and governmental action.
The endemic scarcity of sleep
Sleep is in decline: just 5.91 hours of sleep on average was clocked per night in a recent survey of 8,000 UK adults – down from 6.11 and 6.19 in 2022 and 2021 respectively (Nuffield Health, September 2023). More people are also working night shifts than ever before. From blue light workers to construction and warehouse staff – around 8.7 million people in the UK work what has widely been dubbed the “forgotten shift”; forgotten in the sense that 75% of night workers feel excluded from employee health and wellbeing initiatives and support programmes, even though their jobs pose a much greater occupational health risk than those of day shift workers.
Night shift work, of course, also comes with great personal sacrifice. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified it as ‘probably carcinogenic’. Research also shows working at night disrupts circadian rhythms and contributes to several serious physical health conditions including heart disease and diabetes, and a myriad of mental health conditions, thereby further exacerbating existing health inequalities. The toll on personal relationships can’t be discounted either: night shift workers are six times more likely to divorce than their daytime counterparts. The accident rate, per person, is also 40% higher among night shift workers. Cumulatively, these factors cost the economy £50 billion per annum in attrition rates, accident rates, low productivity and, in some cases, litigation.
Refocusing on the “forgotten shift”
Night shift work cannot be eliminated but employers are increasingly paying attention to the health and wellbeing of employees working this so-called “forgotten shift” through initiatives and resources that provide mental health support and promote better sleep hygiene.
Silicon Valley companies were the first to adopt the fad of ‘nap pods’, encouraging workers to sleep on the job if need be, all in the name of productivity and fostering greater employee engagement. But such interventions have never been effectively proven nor scaled. The impracticalities are too far-reaching that it cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. But other tactics have been experimented with and adopted, with proven efficacy.
Businesses with a robust night shift workforce, including retailers like Co-op and Britvic, transport services such as British Airways and Transport for London and utility companies like Thames Water, are just some of the organisations that have trialled and implemented initiatives that empower both business leaders and employees to promote better, clinically-proven sleep education and take practical steps to mitigate the health risks that inherently come with night work.
One such example is an immersive pop-up experience that brings the science of sleep to life for nighttime workers directly in their place of work. Bold creative design and interactive and playful activities mean the information resonates and sticks. ‘Sleep facilitators’ – all of whom have had their own lived experience of night work – deliver an engaging and empathetic curriculum, conducting exercises with peers so that learnings are reinforced and meaningful behavioural change ensues. There are leadership sessions where operational management are able to discuss quantitative and qualitative findings from delivery sessions that solutions are easily actionable. The initiative has led employers to be much more mindful about the quality of the work environment itself; from interior lighting to the kinds of food available on the premises to night shift workers. The provision of wellbeing support being offered at night alongside the more mindful tailoring of facilities and catering can make all the difference to the nighttime work experience.
Ian Gibb, Head of Logistics at Co-op, who helped implement the scheme in the organisation said: “The key benefits centre around engagement. Night workers tended to be the forgotten shift: they heard things second-hand, they weren’t spoken to and weren’t given any techniques and tips that could help improve their lifestyle or sleep patterns – all the things that we take for granted when we work traditional jobs. With this initiative though, night workers feel acknowledged, listened to, appreciated and valued.”
De-stigmatising sleep for meaningful change
Crucially, it is putting some of the responsibility in tackling the stigmatised issue of sleep into the hands of the employers, helping them understand the part they play in both the presenting problem but also the solution. It is recasting the narrative. Employees, meanwhile, feel much more empowered to manage their health better during shift work which, in turn, enables them to manage sleep outside their shifts more effectively.
The impact has been meaningful on both an individual and organisational level: 90% of night shift workers learnt something new about how to improve their quality of sleep and were confident about making changes to enable a positive outcome, and 80% felt that, by engaging in such an initiative, their employers actively cared and invested in their wellbeing. Meanwhile, employers discerned a positive cultural shift in attitudes towards sleep and fatigue which, in turn, brought the stigmatised subject out of the closet. Dedicated wellbeing spaces were, in some instances, accommodated in environments like depots to foster better health. More nourishing and healthier drink and food options replaced the caffeinated products and snacks that had previously been the cause of the problematic ‘spike and slump’ in workers’ energy levels.
Sleep – a benefit that is elevating employee engagement
Employers are resolving the tensions between fulfilling a service need and the needs of the individuals who are delivering a service – understanding that one cannot effectively operate without the other. Helping teams get good sleep is fast becoming a compelling and indispensable employee engagement benefit.
Of course, organisations can lead this paradigm shift by becoming bastions of best practice. The vision is that support for night workers and employers eventually becomes ratified by policy and funding so that it can be widely adopted. This isn’t a frivolous investment or luxury but rather a lateral way of tackling the rising health and economic crisis associated with long-term night shift work and sleep disruption costing the taxpayer billions. Business leaders, HR directors and the government can come together and work collaboratively to avoid sleepwalking into a social crisis.
Yvonne Campbell and Veronika Neyer are Co-directors of Night Club, an award-winning transformative wellbeing programme that works with businesses to support their night shift workers. It is backed by Impact on Urban Health, the Wellcome Trust and the Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford.