This article was written by Alison Cottrell, CEO, BSB.
We all appreciate the benefits of a good night’s sleep, and never more so than when we have slept badly. While we are still in the process of understanding exactly how sleep works, we have become increasingly aware over the last few years of its importance to our physical and mental health thanks to a range of books, articles and podcasts that have brought ever more research findings to a wide audience.
This heightened awareness of the value of sleep came, of course, just in time for a global pandemic which has given us even more reasons to feel anything but rested. The impact of the pandemic on our sleeping habits has, however, been far from uniform. As became all too apparent in 2020, Covid-19 affects all of us, but each of us differently; in both its direct and indirect effects it is profoundly discriminatory, and sleep is no exception.
In this first of two articles, we look back at what the pre-2020 evidence was telling us about our sleep health going into the pandemic. We then explore in our second article whether and how these patterns have changed, and ask what leaders and managers at firms can do and are doing to promote good sleep health.
As anyone who has ever struggled to remember what it feels like not to be tired will know there are numerous ways of not getting enough sleep. Not having – or not leaving – enough hours in which to sleep, is obvious; but the quality of sleep also matters. Disruptive factors here may include finding it difficult to fall asleep, waking up periodically while asleep, being unable to fall asleep again once awake, having variable sleep patterns or trying to follow a sleep pattern at odds with the natural body clock (poorly scheduled night shifts have been identified as particularly detrimental to health).
Whether relating to quantity or quality, however, a substantial body of evidence points to the detrimental effect of poor sleep on our overall health and our cognitive and social functioning.In 2021 such findings take on even greater resonance given that research also points to the importance of sleep to our immune systems, to a variety of underlying health conditions, and to managing our emotions.
Putting aside sleep quality for the moment, what constitutes ‘enough’ sleep? Between 7-9 hours a night is generally recommended for adults. This does not of course mean that this is right for – let alone achieved by – everybody. Some people may feel tired on 9 hours sleep; for others, 7 may be more than enough. There will always be exceptions.
By definition, however, most of us are not going to be an exception, irrespective of how much we may pride ourselves on our ability to keep running on empty when it comes to sleep. A study of over 10,000 people found that cognitive performance – reasoning, problem solving and verbal skills (though not, interestingly, short term memory) – was impaired in adults of all ages who reported sleeping for less or more than 7-8 hours per night.  At the very low end of the sleep scale, self-reported sleep of less than 4 hours was equivalent in cognitive terms to ageing eight years.
All of which may make it all the more discomforting that the recommended minimum of 7 hours appears to be (as someone not known as a role model for sleeping soundly might have put it) ‘a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance’. In 2019 we included a question in the BSB Survey asking banking sector employees how long they routinely slept each day.38% said 6 hours or less. This finding mirrored that of the 2019 Vitality ‘Britain’s Healthiest Workplace’ Survey, where 35% of respondents across a range of sectors said that they slept for less than 7 hours. In the US, analysis of 2013/14 data put the incidence of self-reported short sleep duration (less than 7 hours) among working adults at 36.5%, and some research suggests that this incidence has subsequently risen.
There is, however, an important caveat with self-reported sleep data, which is that many of us find it difficult to gauge how much we actually sleep. Comparisons of self-reported versus monitored sleep duration point to both under- and over-estimation, with particularly large discrepancies among people who are not sleeping well.
Given this – as well as the obvious fact that time spent asleep takes no account of the quality of that sleep – we asked a further question in 2019 to capture not just self-reported sleep duration ‘input’ (hours slept) but also the ‘output’ of the time slept (how often someone felt very tired during their working day). Around three in ten UK banking sector employees said that they felt very tired at work every day or almost every day. This was smaller than the proportion that said they got 6 hours or fewer sleep, but still large enough to give collective pause for thought to a sector aiming to become ever more efficient and effective in serving its customers and clients. In total, 69% of banking sector employees said that they felt very tired or fatigued at least once a week; slightly higher than the 61% of respondents to the 2019 ‘Britain’s Healthiest Workplace’ survey.
There was a close link between the answers given in our Survey on time spent asleep and on fatigue. Respondents who reported low sleep duration also tended to report a higher incidence of feeling tired at work. The relationship was not however uniform across all groups. This might reflect differences in the quality rather than duration of sleep, in perceptions of what constitutes feeling ‘very tired’, and/or in a tendency to under (or over) estimate time spent asleep. Men were on average more likely than women to say that they slept for 6 hours or less, but less likely to report high levels of fatigue. Employees in investment banking were more likely than those in other business areas to say that they slept for 6 hours or less, but less likely to say that they felt very tired on a daily basis (though more likely to say they felt very tired at least once a week).
The answers to our sleep questions were highly correlated with responses to our two core (i.e. repeated each year) Survey questions relating to personal resilience. Employees who said that they slept least and experienced fatigue most frequently – as well as, at the other end of the sleep spectrum, those who reported very long sleep durations – were more likely to say that they often felt under excessive pressure or that their work had a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. When asked for three words to describe their firm, employees who reported sleeping for 6 hours or less were almost twice as likely as those who slept for 7-9 hours to use words such as ‘stressful’ and ‘pressure’. Poor sleep can of course be both a cause and a consequence of difficulties with stress or health, and these responses cannot tell us anything about causality. Feeling under pressure at work may well have an impact on sleep; equally, however, sleep problems may exacerbate the sense of feeling under pressure, and both may reinforce each other or be a consequences of something else entirely.
These two personal resilience questions aside, the Survey questions most closely correlated with reported sleep and fatigue related to speaking up and to staff feedback. Employees who said that they slept for less than 7 hours were much more likely than those who slept for 7-9 hours to say that they would be concerned about the negative consequences of raising a concern, and much less likely to say that their firm responded effectively to staff feedback. Again, causality cannot be determined from this. One narrative, however, might relate to organisational justice and fairness. Concern about speaking up, and a feeling of not being listened to, are both consistent with a sense of not being treated fairly, and the latter can be important contributor to stress and poor health.
The arrival of Covid-19 has put the importance of good sleep health into even sharper focus by offering new factors to disrupt it. In our next article we will look at the impact of the pandemic on our sleep patterns, and ask how employers can appropriately help promote good sleep health.