Chuck Hermes wasn’t sleeping that well, but he didn’t think much about it until he attended a seminar about sleep. At work.

Taught by sleep educator Sarah Moe, the seminar motivated him to schedule a sleep study, where he found out he has sleep apnea.

“Now I’m using a CPAP machine, and it’s making a huge difference,” he said. “I used to yawn all day, starting at breakfast. I feel more clearheaded. I think I’m more productive.”

In the quest to drive down health care costs, companies have offered employees classes and incentives to drop pounds, increase physical activity, manage stress, incorporate mindfulness and give up tobacco.

They’re addressing only part of the problem, Moe said.

“Companies will bring in a nutritionist or yoga instructor, but they don’t think about how sleep impacts every aspect of a person’s life — their judgment, mental clarity and their immunity to resist getting sick,” said Moe, who founded Minneapolis-based Sleep Health Specialists in 2015. “Sleep is the pillar of health that’s been ignored.”

But corporate America might be waking up to the fact that a good night’s rest promotes health and boosts performance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked inadequate sleep to chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. The National Safety Council put the annual cost of exhaustion at $1.4 million for a company with 1,000 employees. Harvard University researchers concluded that insomnia is responsible for 274,000 workplace accidents and errors each year. And at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers concluded that a poor night’s slumber could interfere with decisionmaking.

It’s no wonder that sleep is becoming the new frontier in wellness initiatives.

“We see employers striving to create a culture of health,” said Stefan Gingerich, senior research analyst at Eagan-based StayWell, which provides businesses with coaching services to manage and improve the health outcomes of their workers.

In 2016, StayWell added a sleep learning series, which includes self-directed online coaching and a daily sleep challenge.

Gingerich knows quite a bit about sleep. In 2017, he surveyed the sleeping habits of 600,000 workers. The survey, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, showed “a clear relationship between hours of sleep and self-reported productivity and absenteeism,” he said.

“The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep, but 30 percent [of employees] get under six hours of sleep.”

Not all about profit

Moe, too, knows about the toll that sleep deprivation takes. A registered polysomnographic technologist, she supervised sleep studies and diagnosed sleep disorders before she became an adjunct professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

“Businesses can break down the cost of fatigue in decreased productivity, higher absenteeism and higher health care costs,” she said. “When employees are sleep-deprived, they show up for work but aren’t fully engaged team members.”

Her company’s most popular offering is an hourlong lunch-and-learn session offered to small groups in the workplace. Moe covers the anatomy and physiology of sleep, common sleep disorders and tips for improving the quality of slumber.

“People come up to me after my presentation with their eyes lit up with hope,” she said. “They see that it’s not normal to be tired all the time and that there is a way that they could feel better.”

But promoting better sleep for employees isn’t all about the bottom line.

“In this tight labor market, a supportive environment and wellness programs impact recruitment and retention,” said Keith McCoy, Minneapolis market manager of OfficeTeam and Accountemps.

This year, the staffing company surveyed more than 300 HR managers and found that 66 percent of their companies have boosted their internal health and wellness programs over the past five years.

Many of the companies OfficeTeam works with have installed “quiet rooms” for napping, meditation or rejuvenation.

”We’re seeing more offices providing a place where employees can rest, recharge or just get out of the fluorescent lighting,” McCoy said.

For employees, employers

Hermes, chief experience officer at Minneapolis digital design company Clockwork, wanted to do best by his 60 employees. That’s why he contacted Sleep Health Specialists.

“The idea that healthy sleep can impact performance at work was intriguing,” he said.

In his effort to help his team, he wound up helping himself.

“I’d been on blood pressure medication for five or six years, but since I started using the CPAP machine, I was able to get off of it,” he said.

“The diagnosis has improved my quality of life, and it’s also improved my wife’s; she doesn’t have to slug me for snoring in bed.”

Hermes said Moe’s message inspired Clockwork managers to model the importance of sleep through their own behavior.

“In the tech world, there’s been an idea that you get your best ideas if you stay up all night, and those who advance in their careers burn the midnight oil,” he said. “It’s been an eye-opener for our 20-somethings to hear us say that’s counterproductive.”

He added, “As managers, we have to demonstrate with our own actions that we get enough sleep to function at our highest capacity.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.