By Anne Cassidy-Business reporter
https://www.bbc.com-image source Getty Images
image caption Even pre-Covid sleep-deprived workers cost the UK economy £40bn according to Rand Europe
Nicole Baker is one of the many people who have struggled with insomnia since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I went from someone who can drop asleep at 9pm everyday, to being awake at 3am every night,” she says. “It was draining and really worrying, as during the day I would really struggle to stay focused.”
Ms Baker, who works as a facilities coordinator, put her sleep issues down to increased anxiety.
“I felt that the constant worry of Covid-19 death rates, job security, my family, not being able to have the freedom of travelling, and the uncertainty of the future, really put great amounts of stress and anxiety on my mind,” she says.
“My mind was in absolute overload, constantly running and worrying about life 24/7, making it impossible for me to sleep at night.”
In the UK, the number of people experiencing insomnia rose from one in six before the pandemic, to one in four during it, according to a study last year by the University of Southampton.
Meanwhile, the word “insomnia” was Googled in the US in 2020 more than ever before.
As well as increased general stress and anxiety levels, a rise in sleep problems has been put down to other factors caused by the pandemic – such as the enforced changes to daily routines and social lives.
With tired staff less productive, the pandemic has led to a number of companies focusing on helping their employees get a better quantity, and quality, of sleep. Ms Baker’s employer, a London-based marketing firm called MVF, is one such business.
When the pandemic hit, MVF expanded its wellbeing support for employees, to offer mental health coaching sessions and workshops focused on sleep, along with free subscriptions to the meditation app, Headspace.
Ms Baker says the extra support has helped her insomnia. “[The resources] helped me learn to recognise and manage how the pandemic has affected me and the people around me, and put my mind at ease a little, which is a big relief,” she says.
Katie Fischer, a sleep coach and founder of Circadian Sleep Coaching, works with businesses to provide support to employees. Along with the increase in anxiety, being stuck inside during lockdown has been a contributor to the rise in sleep disruption, she says.
“Many people have been sleeping later [in the day] because they are getting outside less,” she says. “They are less active and finding it really hard to decompress at the end of the day.
“It’s hard not having that commute, that demarcation that frames the day, gets you up and out into the daylight.”
Global advertising company GroupM is one of the businesses that Ms Fischer works with, providing one-to-one sleep-coaching sessions for its employees.
GroupM had already been running a sleep-coaching service for parents of young children on its staff, but during the pandemic it expanded the service to all employees.
In these sessions, Ms Fischer assesses a person’s health background, personal circumstances, and the reasons behind their challenges with sleep, to help come up with ways to resolve them.
Jennifer Harley, people business partner at GroupM, says that sleep support will continue to be a critical aspect of the company’s health and wellbeing programme. “When we don’t have enough sleep, we don’t bring our best selves to work, so we need to invest in wellbeing,” she says. “Businesses should care about the impact of having people who are happy, healthy and well slept.”
Even before the pandemic, sleep-deprived workers cost the UK economy up to £40bn a year, due to tired employees being less productive, or absent from work altogether, according to a 2016 study from research firm Rand Europe.
With many companies set to adopt a hybrid-working model as the world slowly returns to normal after the pandemic – allowing their staff to continue to work from home part of the time – Ms Fischer advises that businesses check in regularly with employees.
She says firms should set parameters around work and home life, and encourage people who are not working in the office to have a regular routine.
“Some companies try to preserve that opportunity at the end of the day for employees to wind down and relax, so they can support that ability to fall asleep and start afresh the next day,” says Ms Fischer.
She also advises that people stick to a regular wake-up time in the morning, regardless of whether they are working from home that day, or going into the office, to promote better quality sleep.
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Max Kirsten, a hypnotherapist and sleep coach, adds that many of the bad habits people have fallen into during the pandemic, such as increased time spent on phones or tablets, are playing havoc with sleep patterns.
“People are going from screens for work, to screens in their spare time, and then screens at bedtime,” he says. “This is not helped by side issues like alcohol, or too much caffeine in the afternoon or evening,” he says.
The UK trade body, the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), enlisted Mr Kirsten to host a workshop for its employees dealing with sleep problems brought on by the pandemic.
Lily Frenchman, head of operations at ADE, says the organisation has also focused on enabling staff to speak up about the challenges they face regarding their mental health. “If someone was having trouble sleeping I would want to hear, because that’s a sign something’s not working.
“Whether that’s work, or personal, that person needs support,” she says.
For those struggling with insomnia, Mr Kirsten advises getting the conditions right for a good night’s sleep, such as ensuring the room you sleep in is dark and cool, disengaging from screen time and work-related thinking before bed, and, crucially, making sleep a priority in your life.
“Sleep should never be [thought of as] an inconvenience, it’s the pillar that gives you the performance edge,” he says. “It’s about creating special time for this incredible process called sleep.”