In a world ruled by smartphones, tablets and tech devices, how do employees learn to “turn it off” in order to find adequate work/life balance, and more importantly, sleep? According to Statistics Canada, lack of sleep is sadly common amongst Canadians, due to living in a 24-7 world that never seems to unplug. A 2005 General Social Survey of respondents 15 years of age and older highlighted that men slept fewer hours per night than women (8.1 hours versus 8.3 hours). However, the survey also revealed that women were more likely to have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep (35 per cent versus 25 per cent).
Unfortunately, insufficient sleep can have dire consequences and has been linked to a slew of adverse health issues including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, depression and overall well-being.
Given that today’s employees have 24-hour access to information and work, the risk of worker burnout has increased exponentially. Back in the day, employees would “clock out” and go home to be with their families. Now, employees “clock out” and go home to do more work – simply because they can. But employers have a responsibility to ensure employees have a work/life balance – and should encourage them to leave work at the office and “unplug” when possible.
HR administrator Zoe Dzenick and consulting services manager/senior consultant Sharon Kolodychuk of Salopek & Associates Ltd. explain that employers can help employees avoid worker burnout by simply being aware of the signs and addressing them immediately. “Employers should include mental health promotion in their policies and/or mission, vision and values,” say Dzenick and Kolodychuk. “If employers care about the overall mental health and well-being of their staff, they need to ensure that they are not only providing the mechanisms and means for them to decompress from work situations, but that they are also actively involved in self-care.”
Eleanor Culver, president of REAL HR Inc., says, “The lines are blurred between work and personal activities. People take their work home and their personal life to work, in the form of a laptop and/or cellphone. Successful workplaces co-create the expectations around when work takes priority and when personal matters take priority, with the understanding that sometimes one pops into the other.” She echoes the idea that it was much easier to separate work from personal activities “back in the day, because your computer and phone were attached to your desk, which sat in a brick-and-mortar building.”
The fact that it’s so easy to stay connected to work at all times only means that employees are putting their physical and mental health at risk. Dr. Jerome Alonso, medical director of Calgary-based Canadian Sleep Consultants, says the common symptoms of lack of sleep include, but are not limited to, irritability and low mood, difficulties with memory and concentration, and daytime fatigue and sleepiness. “This can lead to increased work-related errors, risk of motor-vehicle accidents and overall reduced quality of life,” explains Dr. Alonso.
Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director at Centre for Sleep & Human Performance and clinical assistant professor at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, further explains the consequences of impaired sleep. “When workers are continuously connected either to work or personal technology use like social media, this not only intrudes into sleep time but it also affects the quality of sleep that an individual gets. When we reduce the amount of sleep and/or impair the quality of sleep, there are physical, mental, cognitive and emotional consequences. Concentration, memory and mood are negatively affected by poor quality and inadequate sleep.”
On the mental health side, Dr. Samuels says those who suffer from anxiety and/or depression will have a harder time improving their condition if they have poor sleep patterns. On the flip side, those who have poor sleep patterns are at risk of developing anxiety and/or depression, over time. He goes on to say that chronic pain also can be much harder to treat in patients with sleep disorders.
“Appetite is also affected and we tend to crave high-calorie dense foods and this predisposes us to weight gain and poor weight control,” adds Dr. Samuels. “People will become irritable, sleepy and fatigued. They will tend to be more reliant on coffee and eat high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods as a result of the fatigue. The average worker will become progressively and persistently more fatigued and this will affect their energy levels and their motivation to engage in social activities or to get active and do some exercise.”
In the workplace, employers can promote work/life balance by leading by example and creating realistic expectations and timelines for employees – a practice-what-you-preach approach. Dzenick and Kolodychuk warn, “If employers push their employees beyond their capacities, they will likely see higher turnover rates, higher risk of mistakes in work and decreased overall quality of work. As well, putting unreasonable amounts of pressure on employees creates a toxic work culture and workplace conflict.”
If employers really want to avoid worker burnout, Dzenick and Kolodychuk advise adopting an open-door policy and offering support to employees from upper management. “Touch-point meetings with employees to find out how they’re doing and what currently excites them is also helpful.”
Dr. Alonso recommends having proper sleep hygiene, which is achieved by establishing a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, having a comfortable and quiet sleep environment, preparing for sleep with a proper wind down and avoiding stimulating substances such as caffeine and tobacco close to bedtime. He also suggests incorporating regular exercise, which has been proven to promote more regular sleep patterns.
Dr. Samuels echoes that advice, “It’s important to recognize that sleep is important to health, first and foremost. People need to make sleep a priority then they need to figure out how much sleep per night they need to be fully rested, not how much they can get away with. Most adults need 7.5 to eight hours of sleep per day to be fully rested and function well without consequences.
“Once you figure out how much sleep you need then you have to have a strategy for maintaining a routine with a stable bedtime and wake time every day. Some people will sleep in on the weekend to “catch up” which is quite reasonable. It’s also important to put limits on screen time and make sure to have one to two hours to relax and avoid technology prior to going to bed. If you have done all of these things and your sleep is still bad then going to the pharmacy and getting a sleeping pill or using cannabis products is a very bad idea. You should seek help from your primary care provider and get proper medical advice. The use of over-the-counter medication for sleep is an indication that you need to get a professional opinion about your sleep problems,” cautions Dr. Samuels.
On the work front, employers who create positive work environments that promote work/life balance and reasonable expectations will be more successful in avoiding worker burnout. “Find ways to focus on happiness and to have a little fun at work – laughter goes a long way,” says Dzenick.