Sleep. We all need sleep. It’s the way our bodies heal, recharge, and de-stress. When the human body suffers from sleep deprivation, ‘sleep debt’ builds up. Sleep specialists say that just two weeks of less than six hours of sleep a night reduces alertness and performance to a level equal to going 24 hours without sleep. Likewise, sleeping only four hours at night is equal to missing two to three full days of sleep over time.
The primary side effects of sleep deprivation include:
- Impaired brain activity
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Memory issues
- Accident prone
- Micro sleep
- Weakened immune system function
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
Most of these side effects are caused by long-term sleep deprivation, but some may happen from just a few nights of little sleep.
Who is more familiar with lack of sleep than new parents? It is claimed that new parents lose an average of two hours of sleep a night during the first five months of their baby’s life (some would say it is much higher). While mothers usually bear the biggest brunt of sleep deprivation due to breastfeeding, fathers’ sleep is also affected by the cries of a hungry baby, and they often help the mother by taking certain feeding shifts throughout the night.
Either way, both parents suffer the effects of sleep deprivation in the first months of their newborn’s life. Eventually (or hopefully), the newborn will adjust to a manageable sleep schedule, but it’s common for both parents to have interrupted sleep patterns until their child is two years old.
Until then, lack of sleep affects all areas of life, including work. Sleep deprived parents that return to work after parental leave will experience an adjustment period.
Sleep deprivation in the workplace can cause problems like these:
- Poor performance, or lack of efficiency
- Mood changes that cause irritability and short temper
- Problems focusing on even the simplest tasks
- Lapses of memory on the job
- Accidents on the job when manual labor is involved
- Frequent bouts of sleepiness throughout the day
- Nodding off while driving, in meetings, or while performing tasks
What can employers do to help reduce sleep deprivation problems in the workplace?
First, employers should be aware of the signs of sleep deprivation mentioned above; the signs are obvious when employers know how their employees normally perform. Be exceptionally supportive of new parents during the adjustment time. Flexible scheduling and small changes to working conditions can make all the difference in the world to a sleep deprived parent.
Flexible hours is one option. Another is to offer the employee an opportunity to take advantage of government-sponsored parental leave, (paternity leave can even be split into two separate periods). From my experience as an HR consultant, I have been approached about this issue and how best to handle it by both employees and employers. A supportive workplace culture and flexible scheduling are my two primary recommendations to employers.
Ideally, it’s best to establish a supportive policy for new parents to encourage well-being and avoid poor work performance. You might be surprised at how high morale can become when a pro-parent, supportive culture is implemented in the workplace. It doesn’t have to be anything too complex but some flexibility around start and end times, the ability to work from home some days, job sharing and a reduction in travel can all have a dramatic effect. Some larger and more progressive companies are now offering on-site childcare facilities, monetary assistance with childcare costs and even subsidized concierge services to assist with household chores such as cleaning, car servicing, laundry etc.
From a health and well-being perspective it’s important for employees’ to get ample sleep and to find ways to reduce stress when returning to work after the birth of a newborn. Employers have several different options to provide better work-life balance to employees. The goal is to have a productive and happy workplace for a successful business, this obviously requires alert and productive employees.
Sleep deprivation isn’t conducive to a productive work environment, so establish policies to support and help your employees with life changes like new babies. You’ll be glad you did when you see the results in productivity, workplace morale and long term retention. Workplace culture and benefits are becoming more and more important to employees so having good policies in place can make you an employer of choice.