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How to Help Your Employees Sleep Better, Despite COVID-19

By Jen Thomas | October 26, 2020 | Rally Health

"Gotten much sleep lately?" 

It might not immediately occur to you to ask your employees how they're doing when it comes to getting enough shuteye, but as the COVID era continues, no surprise, people aren’t sleeping as well as they used to. In a survey of more than 1,000 Americans, 77% said the pandemic was impacting their shuteye, with 58% saying they were sleeping at least one hour less.

And who can blame them? After a day spent obeying calendar alerts announcing the next video meeting (and that’s just for the kids) or worrying over whether a sneeze is just a sneeze (it’s allergy season, right?) it can be tough to settle down for sleep. Daylight-saving time switches can also throw off sleep cycles.

“We’re in an unprecedented time that’s causing higher stress, which can cause insomnia,” says Bill Fish, a certified sleep coach with the National Sleep Foundation.

 You probably already know that sleep plays a huge role in how well we function. It helps us fight off infections (especially crucial now), learn information, and feel energetic. Good sleep can also enhance mood and improve mental health. And sleep is critical for productivity. People who get five to six hours of sleep a night, for example, are 19% less productive than those who get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep, according to a 2018 study

As an employer, it’s within your power to influence some of the factors that affect your employees’ sleep, such as work-related stress and schedules. Here's expert advice on how to get started.  

Be honest and supportive

Anything you can do to help set your employees’ minds at ease is worthwhile. That doesn’t mean you have to be Pollyannaish about the company’s status all the time. But it means taking time to address people’s questions and worries — even if they haven’t voiced them yet.  

“Stress and uncertainty can affect our ability to calm our brains down, which is a major contributor to poor sleep,” says Beth Ann Malow, MD, a professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, who is also board certified in sleep medicine. “Answer the scary questions about layoffs or furloughs as honestly as you can. And ask employees how you can help with their biggest needs.”

Periodically remind employees about your company’s policies about what happens if they get sick or need to take care of a family member. It can go a long way for them to know you have their back if they run into a problem.

Also continue to or share any relevant offerings through your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) if you have one. EAPs are meant to help people deal with personal problems that are complicating their work lives. Those issues might include caring for kids or older relatives, substance abuse, financial problems, or health concerns. Encourage your employees to take advantage of the services offered through the EAP, many of which are available by phone, email, or video chat.

And don’t forget to tell your employees to take some time off. A Robert Half survey found that in May, 28% of workers planned to take less summer vacation time than the previous year because of COVID while 37% said they were planning to save their vacation time for later in the year. With the holidays approaching, employees might start taking time off, but if you’ve noticed a worker hasn’t stepped away in awhile, suggest a break.  The staycation is definitely enjoying a renaissance in 2020.

Help with the home office

While working remotely might once have seemed temporary, many major companies aren’t planning on reopening their offices until early 2021 or beyond. Even then, it likely won’t be at full staffing levels. Other companies have given employees the chance to work remotely indefinitely. 

Unfortunately, not everyone has an optimal workspace at home. (There are a lot of dining room tables doing double duty these days.) Don’t forget to check in with employees every so often to make sure they have the equipment they need and that their work areas are as functional as possible.

Neck and back pain from desks or chairs or monitors that aren’t the right height can make it harder for people to sleep at night, says Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. Addressing that concern could simply mean sending an email with the Occupational and Safety Health Administration’s (OSHA) best working posture tips.

Breus also suggests that employers could purchase blue-light-blocking glasses for employees or point them toward blue-light-reducing apps. That’s because the artificial light from screens can make it harder for people to fall asleep.

At the very least, try to discourage people from working hunched over a laptop or from working in their bedrooms if possible. “We should train our minds and bodies to associate our bedrooms with relaxation and sleep,” Fish says.

Promote work/life balance

In the early COVID-19 days, a Cleveland news station jokingly aired a segment called, “What Day Is It?” Even now, some people may be struggling with creating boundaries between their work and home lives. The new normal is far from normal, but as much as employees can maintain a predictable schedule, the better. 

“A routine is critical to good sleep,” Malow says. “Every day, people should be getting out of their PJs, showering, and get dressed. At the end of the workday, it’s time to put away work and start unwinding.”

One simple way to help with that is to make sure to call or email employees only during traditional work hours, and encourage others to do the same.

“That allows people to not have to be constantly checking their phones when they should be spending time with their families or winding down,” Fish says.

In some cases, your employees’ workloads may have increased if you’ve had to lay off or furlough workers. Try to keep your employees’ work hours as manageable as possible to prevent burnout. Not surprisingly, working too many hours, which throws off people’s schedules and adds to stress, is not good for sleep, Fish says.

At the same time, many employees may need to work more unusual hours to get things done, especially if they have young children at home. Supporting that need can take some of the stress off your workers. So when possible, allow for flexible hours, extend deadlines and rethink mandatory meetings. (Could some of those video meetings have been emails instead?)

Pandemic or not, when companies are more understanding of employees’ need for work/life balance, their employees sleep better. A 2019 study found that when a group of managers received family-supportive supervisor training and worked to identify new practices that helped workers have more control over their schedule, their employees slept better and longer for up to 18 months after the training.

Encourage breaks

Taking breaks during the workday is especially important as the impact of COVID-19 may mean some workers are facing additional stress and more hectic schedules, and are getting less sunlight or exercise. Not getting enough natural light during the day has been shown to cause trouble with sleeping at night.

An easy way to build breaks into the workday is to offer optional virtual walking groups, in which co-workers socialize while safely walking around outside. The combination of natural light and physical activity can be a boon to both their moods and, later, their sleep habits. Even 30 minutes of moderate activity can be helpful.

Virtual lunches could also be a good chance to hire a sleep expert to share sleep tips with your employees or create a sleep quality improvement plan for your company.

Employers might not have thought much about their teams’ sleep quality or duration in the past. But pervasive sleep woes have made helping employees a priority.

“If we’re not getting seven to eight quality hours of sleep a night, we’re depriving our minds and bodies of the rest they need, and our mental focus won’t be at its best,” Fish says.

Articles on Rally Health’s website are provided for informational purposes only, as a free resource for the public. They are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Rally Health does not accept solicitations or compensation from any parties mentioned in the articles, and the articles are not an endorsement of any providers, experts, websites, tools, or financial consultants, services, and organizations.

Jen Thomas
Rally Health