People who can’t sleep at night tend not to consider their problem to be an illness that requires treatment, or a good reason to call in sick. That mindset could hurt employers and employees by making insomniacs drag themselves to work and sleepwalk through the day, according to a new study. Researchers surveyed 7,428 employed people and found that 23 percent experienced some form of insomnia — such as difficulty falling asleep or waking up during the night — at least three times a week during the previous month, for at least one-half hour at a time. It should come as no surprise that these sleep problems carry over to their jobs. Insomniacs were no more likely than their coworkers who slept well to miss work, but were so consistently tired that they cost their employers the equivalent of 7.8 days of work in lost productivity every year — an amount equal to an average of roughly $2,280 in salary per person. That adds up to $63.2 billion (and 252.7 workdays) for the entire nation.
The majority of study participants did not physically miss work as a result of insomnia, said lead author Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., a psychiatric epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. They frequently show up too tired to perform their job effectively (a phenomenon known as “presenteeism”). “Employers these days want their workers to stay home if they’re sick. If they know you’re absent, they can at least find ways to fill in for you,” Kessler said. “But you can’t stay home every day if you’re chronically sleep deprived, so these people get in the habit of going to work and then not performing.”
According to Kessler, “It’s an underappreciated problem. Americans are not missing work because of insomnia. They are still going to their jobs but accomplishing less because they’re tired. In an information-based economy, it’s difficult to find a condition that has a greater effect on productivity.”
Fully 23 percent of employees were estimated to have insomnia; that statistic was verified by sleep medicine experts, who independently evaluated a sub-sample of the study group. Researchers also found that employees aged over 65 are less likely to be insomniacs (14 percent) and that men were less likely (20 percent) to have trouble sleeping than women (27 percent). Because the typical cost of insomnia treatment ranges from $200 annually for a sleep aid to $1,200 per year for behavior modification therapy, the study’s author believes that screening and treating workers’ sleep issues may be worthwhile for employers.
“When we actually did the calculations we were amazed at the extent of the problem,” Kessler said. “It seems unbelievable that more than 250 million days a year of lost productivity can be attributed to insomnia. Yet this hasn’t really been on anyone’s radar. Worker screening programs and programs to teach workers good sleep hygiene may be very effective and could actually save employers money. These programs might help people feel a lot better and get more done on the job.”
Donna Arand, Ph.D., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says the study underlines a problem that is well recognized by sleep specialists. “What struck me most about the study was the fact that workers really weren’t calling in sick,” she says. “People with chronic insomnia are going to work but they aren’t functioning at their maximum. We all experience this from time to time, but for people with insomnia it could be happening every day. One of the most important things is to try to get up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends. Routine is the key.”
People can be described as insomniacs when they have trouble sleeping for at least a month. The causes can be alcoholism, anxiety, coffee, and stress; it can also result from medical conditions like depression. The more insomniacs think about getting enough sleep, the more stressed they become, and that results in even less sleep.
“Now that we know how much insomnia costs the American workplace, the question for employers is whether the price of intervention is worthwhile,” Kessler said. “Can U.S. employers afford not to address insomnia in workplace?”