American insurance group Aetna has been rewarding employees who get at least seven hours of sleep a night, in cash. Aetna’s initiative is based on an honours system where workers are trusted to manually record their own sleep cycles. While the company’s intention is to increase the wellbeing of its workforce, its motivation isn’t purely benevolent: more sleep translates into higher productivity, the logic runs.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates that the average American worker loses 11.3 working days’ worth of productivity per annum due to sleep deprivation related problems. This amounts to $2,280 per worker, or a staggering $63.2bn for the whole US economy. Guaranteeing optimum worker cognitive function is also an efficient and cheap way to increase output. Many companies have already been attempting to softly micro-manage workers’ social lives with the intent of promoting social wellbeing. Numerous organisations run health benefit schemes, incentivising workers to take regular exercise or to stop smoking, remunerating them with subsidised cinema tickets and other such bonuses. We could see sleep rewarded more regularly in the future.
There are also direct health benefits. University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) researchers recently revealed that less than six hours of sleep a night weaken a person significantly to the point where they are four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to a virus, when compared to someone who sleeps the recommended amount.
The ubiquity and constant use of electronic screens has been found by Norwegian researchers to disrupt sleep patterns. Compounded by the list of existing disruptive factors such as stress, anxiety, irregular shift work, caffeine and hormonal changes, this new and drastic change in people’s lifestyles has made it more difficult to guarantee a good night’s rest.
Even if the reasoning behind Aetna’s initiative is primarily concerning work productivity and worker efficiency, the health benefits for the individual workers are immense. It may be that promising data from such initiatives could, in time, lead to national health funding across the board, and even a decrease in work hours. Fatigue, mainly caused by insufficient rest over long periods, has many mental and physical ramifications. Low immunity level, hormonal imbalances, fat retention and impaired glucose tolerance can lead to the development of serious diseases such as diabetes which can increase the mortality and morbidity rates. Lack of proper sleep also correlates with an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep deprivation has been a problem for the corporate world for quite some time and now has spawned a micro-economy to deal with it in the form of sleep advisers who are employed to alter the sleep patterns of global company employees.
There are exceptions; roughly one in every thousand people possess a gene which allows them to function on minimal sleep yet retain full awareness and productivity levels (the late British prime minister Margret Thatcher being one of them). For the rest of us, it seems that natural preventative remedies such as a balanced diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep play a large role in reducing potential health problems in the future.
There is no real way to guarantee its success as reasons for personal motivation are subjective. It also raises the question of boundaries and privacy. Is it right that companies are slowly intruding into their workers’ personal lives, even if the reasons are philanthropic? Should there be a complete separation of work life and private life and if not, how far should the business world encroach into our private lives?