Health & Wellbeing
Flexibility at Work is Key to a More Rested, Productive Workforce
Nebeyou Abebe
Nebeyou Abebe
Senior Director,
Health & Well-Being
Sodexo North America

Given employees’ busy and demanding lives, sleep is a necessity—but its importance is all too often overlooked. Getting enough sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, and can benefit your heart, weight, mind and more. Yet, it is estimated that around 30% of adults don’t get enough sleep. According to a 2008 National Sleep Foundation poll, almost a third of American employees report that daytime sleepiness interferes with their daily activities at least a few days each month. In fact, sleep loss affects so many adults that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.

When workers don’t get enough sleep, it can impair their concentration and slow productivity. Tired employees exhibit slower reaction times and poor decision-making skills, which can lead to costly mistakes for their employers. According to Meir Kryger, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, people who don’t sleep well can exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Frequent sleepiness
  • Nodding off at meetings or while driving
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Lapses in memory
  • Poor performance, worse than usual
  • Mood changes, such as being more snappy and irritable

Sleep needs are highly individual. Discoveries about sleep cycles have given researchers new insight into the specific role sleep plays in overall health and performance. Not everyone requires the same amount of sleep or has the same sleep schedule. Our circadian rhythms—when we prefer to sleep—are different. Some of us are morning people and others are night owls. For both types of people, the typical 9-5 workday, often with a commute at both ends, is not ideal for encouraging good sleep habits. In fact, evidence shows that work schedules impact how well and how long people sleep. A recent article published in the journal Sleep Health found that people who work from home don’t just get more done, they sleep better, too.

Employees with a flexible work schedule and/or work environment, such as telecommuting or flexible hours, find that being able to manage their schedule differently can lead to a better night’s rest. A telecommuter can save time on the road and sitting in traffic, perhaps leading to an earlier bedtime. A night owl may be able get some extra sleep by reporting to work later and working into the evening when he or she is most productive. In either case, having control over their work schedule allows employees to adjust their sleep to a pattern that best fits their lifestyle.

Sometimes employees in flexible work arrangements do not actually get any more sleep by changing their work schedule, but they do find that they are able to do more things that they enjoy, such as going out with friends, or spending time with family. While these activities can sometimes compete with sleep, they also help to reduce stress and anxiety, which in the long run can improve sleep quantity and quality. A lack of sleep costs the U.S. $63 billion each year in lost productivity, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Encouraging flexible work schedules and giving employees more control over their time could help employees get a better night’s sleep and lead to a more productive day.

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Nebeyou Abebe is Senior Director, Health & Well-being in Sodexo North America’s Office of Sustainability & Corporate Social Responsibility.

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