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Taking Sleep Seriously

Employers are seeing the effects of proper rest -- or a lack thereof -- on the workforce, leading some to make sleep health a bigger component of their wellness programs.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017
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At first, Susan Leslie just thought it would be a good way to rack up incentive points in the company wellness program.

Leslie, an administrative coordinator in the senior products division at Humana Inc., earns 25 points a week by logging her nightly rest in a sleep diary through the organization's Go365 wellness program. (Humana employees can log their sleep patterns themselves or automatically upload the data by syncing Go365 with a fitness tracker that records sleep.)

Those weekly points get her that much closer to earning rewards such as gift cards, movie tickets, and fitness gear and devices. But she's come to realize that she's getting an even greater return.

"I've noticed that keeping a sleep diary helps me go to bed at a time that is conducive to obtaining a minimum of seven hours of sleep," says Leslie. "I've always had a difficult time going to sleep. But now, going to bed earlier -- and syncing my fitness apparatus for my sleep, food and step logs -- is all part of my nightly routine."

That nightly routine pays dividends the next day.

"Using the sleep diary and getting seven-plus hours of sleep per night increases my alertness in the morning, keeping me safe during the morning commute," says Leslie. "I'm able to perform better during the day, beginning as soon as I hit the Humana office door. It also reminds me to take care of myself."

Helping employees such as Leslie take better care of themselves is a primary reason why Humana has made sleep health an integral part of its Go365 program, says Tim State, vice president of associate health and well-being at the Louisville, Ky.-based health insurer.

Since its inception in 2011 -- prior to Jan. 1, 2017, the Go365 program was known as HumanaVitality -- the initiative was designed to reward employees with points for taking steps to improve their well-being, such as completing a workout or undergoing an annual health exam.

In the last three to four years, however, the program has expanded to encompass other aspects of employee health.

"We don't just focus on one thing," says State, noting that 95 percent of the company's 50,000-plus employees participate in Go365. "We address multiple dimensions, including physical and emotional health, one's sense of purpose, one's level of belonging in relationships and one's sense of security, including financial security.

"Sleep is an important part of many of those dimensions, especially physical and emotional health," he continues. "So it's natural that we include this as a major component of a larger well-being picture."

Technology, of course, helps bring this picture into focus. Humana, for example, encourages employees to use wearable devices to quantify daily activities such as sleep, and Go365 takes advantage of roughly 70 devices, including brands such as Apple Health, Fitbit and Garmin, to help employees track their sleeping patterns.

In addition to these vendors, a growing number of providers -- the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, Big Health, Ceridian and SleepMed Inc., to name just a few -- have emerged with tools and technologies aimed at helping employers encourage their workers to sleep more and sleep better.

We might very well see the sleep health technology market become more crowded in the future, as employers such as Humana become more involved in helping employees improve the quantity and quality of their sleep, and thereby become healthier, more engaged and more productive on the job.

Making the Connection

Sleep is critical to employees' overall well-being, not to mention their job performance.

More than a third of American adults are not regularly getting the seven hours of nightly sleep that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommends, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This fatigue inevitably takes a toll on the workforce. A 2016 RAND Europe study, for example, estimates sleep deprivation costs employers in the U.S. roughly $411 billion a year, with the U.S. losing an equivalent of roughly 1.23 million working days annually due to insufficient sleep. In sectors that depend heavily on shift workers -- manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality and trucking, for instance -- the situation is even more dire (see sidebar).

Consider statistics from the National Sleep Foundation, which find between 25 percent and 30 percent of shift workers -- who often work in roles that require alertness and quick decision-making -- experience symptoms of excessive sleepiness or insomnia. According to the NSF, around 10 percent of night and rotating shift workers are believed to have shift work disorder, which several studies have linked to higher risks of heart disease, digestive disorders and other health issues.

Such figures aren't lost on employers, some of whom are doing something about it.

"Americans are tired," says Stephanie Pronk, a Minneapolis-based senior vice president and leader of Aon Hewitt's national health-transformation team. "And I think companies are recognizing that there might be something they can do in terms of building awareness around proper sleep, and encouraging employees to adopt better sleep behaviors."

LuAnne Heinen, a vice president at the Washington-based National Business Group on Health, adds: "Companies are seeing the connection that sleep has to the things they care about -- employees' physical health, mood and behavior, as well as the safety and judgment that employees display on the job."

In addition to relying on the growing body of research that shows the negative effects of sleep deprivation on the workforce, employers have become much more attuned to "helping employees in the areas where they want to be helped," says Heinen.

"Sleep, or a lack thereof, is something that's really challenging for a lot of employees," she continues. "The exciting part of what companies are doing is that they're asking their people, 'What is your sleep problem? Is it that you can't fall asleep? Is it that you can't stay asleep?' There are much more sophisticated approaches to understand how to resolve sleep challenges now."

An Emphasis on Sleep

In March, more than 300 LinkedIn Corp. employees gathered in New York in search of answers to their sleep issues at the online professional network operator's first LinkedIn "Quest for Rest" Sleep Fair.

The event was borne out of the HR function's desire to make proper sleep a focus of its wellness efforts, says Michael Susi, senior global wellness director at the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company.

"The HR team and I sat down together to establish our employee wellness goals for 2017. And our objective was to focus on an aspect [of employee health] that was universal," says Susi, adding that a series of internal wellness surveys indicated that sleep behavior was an ongoing concern for large numbers of LinkedIn employees.

For the New York sleep fair, LinkedIn invited a number of wellness companies and experts to educate employees on sleep health and, in some cases, show ways to improve sleep quality. One presenter, for example, displayed techniques for making a bed in a way that enables the most comfortable sleep to occur, and handed out analog alarm clocks (choosing analog clocks to encourage employees to take a break from technology). Another demonstrated proper sleep positions and breathing mechanics.

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Attendees were also able to familiarize themselves with sleep-related products and services from about 20 vendors who made the trip to the New York office -- either in person or virtually -- to take part in the event. Upon their arrival, employees received goody bags chock full of sleep-related books, discount offers from the participating vendors, nasal devices, probiotics and other items designed to aid sleep health.

Through its first sleep fair -- the company has since held a similar event for employees in Dublin, Ireland -- LinkedIn wanted to "bring the importance of sleep to life through an engaging, interactive format," says Susi, adding that he and the HR team are currently planning sleep fairs at other offices in the U.S.  and internationally.

The goal, he says, is "to educate our employees on the importance of sleep and [offer] advice on how they can get a good night's rest."

Spreading the Message

At Humana, State and the HR team have a similar objective with respect to sleep health, and have prioritized "putting the issue in front of our associates," he says.

State notes that associates with high-levels of well-being are more engaged, have one-third as many missed work days, one third the stress and are one-third as likely to be looking for another job.

The HR function's role in encouraging the type of sleep habits that keep engagement and retention numbers high and stress levels low is largely "raising awareness of sleep's role in overall well-being," says State.

To help disseminate the message, the HR department has enlisted a team of nearly 300 associate volunteers who serve as "well-being champions" throughout the organization.

As part of the Well-being Champion Program, these employees "guide and inspire their teammates, helping them maximize their opportunities to engage in experiences and resources that drive improvement," says State.

To earn a spot as a well-being champion, Humana associates must complete quarterly training, participate in monthly internal and external well-being champion meetings, and help maintain the company's SharePoint site to keep their colleagues up-to-date on well-being news, programs and initiatives. Well-being champions also help update Humana's internal social media network -- known colloquially as Buzz -- as well as the company's intranet, which includes links to sleep-related articles and tips for achieving better sleep, such as tracking sleep habits for a few weeks, finishing exercise at least two hours before bedtime and avoiding naps after 4 p.m.

Just this year, Humana updated its corporate intranet to feature a section on sleep.

"People can reflect on not just how many hours [of sleep] they're getting, but also how soundly they're sleeping and how it all connects to their energy levels and other aspects of health, like weight loss."

Going forward, State says, Humana will continue to raise the awareness of sleep health through its various communication vehicles.

"For many [of our associates], it's a wake-up call," says State. "No pun intended."

Read also:

Shift Workers and Poor Sleep

 

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