Sleeping on the job

07.08.2019 | Sarah Murray


At the risk of stating the obvious, human beings need sleep. Without it, you become cranky, then unwell, then seriously unwell, and then you’ll either sleep on your feet or sleep in your coffin. Just how much sleep is required varies from person to person, but generally up to a third of our lives are spent shut down in a dormant state. The point is – sleep is inevitable and important. But sleep is something we rarely think of in HR. Logically this makes some sense. Sleep and work are two things which, unless you’re fortunate enough to work as a mattress tester, are impossible to do at the same time. But, given the importance of sleep to humans, and the fact that our job is to deal with the human element of any workforce, we really need to talk about it more.

As already mentioned, lack of sleep is detrimental to health. It is also detrimental to work performance. A tired and drowsy employee is more likely to perform tasks slower, make mistakes and bad decisions, cause an accident, start a fight, or, obviously, fall asleep at work. Employees falling asleep at work actually happens with alarming frequency if this study from the Virgin Pulse Institute is accurate. After looking at 1,140 people, 15% of them said they fell asleep at least once per week at work. But even if they’re not falling asleep, drowsy and lethargic employees aren’t ideal. In some professions, drowsiness can kill. Doctors, truck drivers, pilots, and firefighters are just some examples of occupations where being inadequately alert can have fatal consequences. It’s important we get to grips with this and understand it. So… what role does HR have in this?

“I wasn´t sleeping! I was meditating on the mission statement and envisioning a new paradigm!”

Historically, being tired at work has always been frowned upon, and culturally we’ve almost always blamed the employee for having the audacity to not sleep adequately enough to show up for work not tired. While some instances of tiredness at work certainly are the fault of the person who has been partying until 3AM, this is still a poor way of thinking about the situation. There are sleep-related disabilities which people suffer from (such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea), or they might be taking medication which is causing drowsiness. Alternatively, they may have been up half the night looking after a sick toddler or simply be somewhat unwell. In any case, it is vital that the right approach is taken towards employees who are frequently tired at work.

Unsympathetic management may well want to wade in with cold-blooded discipline, but if this is permitted and it turns out the employee has a sleep disorder the manager could be running afoul of disability discrimation laws. Additionally, the employee may be being overworked (if you’re a fan of work horror stories, read my commentary about crunch time in the gaming industry here), and if this is the case then trying to discipline them could backfire in a way which results in the entire company being brought into disrepute.

If you see an employee who is always tired or falling asleep at work, speak to them. Try and investigate the reasons for tiredness. If there is a culture of openness and empathy it will make any investigation far quicker and easier. Make it clear to both management and the employee that their health and the safety of their colleagues comes first. It’s also important to be mindful that in many countries in Europe employees are not obliged to disclose any medical conditions.

“I’m actually doing a “Stress Level Elimination Exercise Plan” (SLEEP)

One effective way to deal with this is to actually encourage workplace sleeping where appropriate. A quiet room, a comfy couch, and no harsh words for an exhausted employee who grabs 30 or 40 minutes to recharge themselves might both improve employee productivity and also employee relations. Some might worry that, potentially, you might get party-animal employees going at it until the sun goes down then getting paid to recover on the company furniture. This will undoubtedly happen from time to time, but unless it becomes a repeated pattern of behaviour then it is probably the lesser of two evils, and if it does become a repeated pattern of behaviour then you’ll be able to actually log and track an employee’s sleeping at work habits which might be useful if you do have to take action later.

Another thing worth considering is to offer flexible working. Some people seem to be naturally night-owls, others are early risers. If people are able to work when they’re at their most productive and energetic, as opposed to simply the numbers on the clock, you’ll likely see a more productive workforce.

One other solution, quite simple yet rarely thought of, is to encourage employees to take their breaks outside. Too often employees take a “break” by sitting at their desk/in their workshop with a cup of coffee and a sandwich, on their phone or browsing the net maybe, but still occupying the same workstation where they’re going to be for a few more hours. A bit of fresh air, natural light and a bit of a walk during a break or during lunch really is a “break” and can work wonders. The walk in particular will give people a bit of a cardio workout that will stave off grogginess. If your organisation has some spare space outside then a few weatherproof benches and tables might be a simple but excellent investment in your workforce.

Crucially, consider compassionate leave in some cases. If an employee has a sick child at home, and is up half the night with them, they’re not going to to be able give you their best. Likewise if an employee is themselves sick, or is going through a messy divorce, or Allowing them to go home, with your blessing, will not only do wonders for your potential Karma, but also dramatically improve employee loyalty and engagement.

Those of us who work in Human Resources have a duty to serve the organisations we work for, but we also have a duty to protect the health and wellbeing of the people who work for them. As sleep is so closely linked to wellbeing it’s important we take it seriously. Overworked, stressed, unwell, or tired employees are not only likely to underperform, but they’re also risking their own health and that of their fellow workers, and if we allow that to happen we fail to fulfill our duty at the most basic yet profound level.

About the author

Sarah Murray
The HR cat has been lurking in various human resources departments for years, and has survived to tell the tale despite her inherent curiosity. HR can be a strange, mysterious and ever changing world full of cryptic lingo, acronyms, and clandestine meetings, sometimes with stern HR mistresses telling you off. The HR cat is here to give you an insight into the HR world, tell you what all the lingo, acronyms, and scary meetings actually mean and how they’re relevant to you, whether you’re an employee, manager, shareholder or CEO, without abusing you with technical details or HR minutiae. Hopefully the HR Cat’s insights will  not deter any budding HR professionals from taking a leap into the fascinating, fun, spooky, dark and sometimes dangerous jungle of human resources.

In her years as a HR professional she has hired and fired countless people, restructured and harmonized many business and workplaces, disciplined and developed hundreds of workers, and given hope to the world that yes, HR departments can be an asset and facilitator, not just a cost and an obstruction.

She knows all about EU employment law, best HR practices, and workplace cultures, so if you need HR advice with a European flavour feel free to get in touch. However, this is a busy cat who doesn’t just bask in the sun all day, so please be patient when awaiting an answer.