BenefitsPRO: Quality Sleep Article

Aug 4, 2021 | News

An article from our co-founders Dr. Melissa Lim and Patrick Yam has been featured in BenefitsPRO. The full text is provided below, or click the following link to read the “Quality sleep: Why employers must support this pillar of a ‘new normal’” article.

Quality sleep: Why employers must support this pillar of a ‘new normal’

Ensuring workers are well rested is more important as the economy picks up and offices reopen post-COVID.

By Melissa S Lim and Patrick Yam

To attract the best and brightest in a competitive job market organizations must think holistically about what employees need to feel and perform their best and stay healthy. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Accommodating workers after more than a year of life with COVID-19 is top of mind for employers. But physical workplaces aren’t the only thing that’s shifting. Benefits must be front of mind, too.

Employees are now accustomed to working from home, and many have discovered a better work-life balance — no commuting, no hustle to ‘get ready’ for more than a Zoom call, and no fears of whether colleagues will wear masks.

Many of these workers, especially those in traditional corporate office jobs, expect their employers to consider how benefits need to shift to accommodate this new normal too.

Prioritizing mental health

Mental health has been a huge topic of conversation during the pandemic. Changes in the daily lives of Americans have taken a toll, with approximately half of adults (47%) continuing to report negative mental health impacts related to worry or stress from the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor.

But enhancing mental health benefits goes beyond offering a flexible schedule or virtual yoga classes. To attract the best and brightest in a competitive job market organizations must think holistically about what employees need to feel and perform their best and stay healthy, inside or outside the office.

Opening our eyes to the benefits of sleep

One of the easiest and more cost-effective ways to enhance both mental and physical help begins with sleep. Yes, sleep.

A growing body of research shows that sleep deprivation is associated with productivity losses and a higher mortality risk, and that even minimal improvements in sleep can save millions of dollars in medical costs. An estimated 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders.

Yet only one-quarter of employers offer specific programs to improve sleep quality, according to a 2019 employee benefits survey of large corporations.

The case for boosting sleep benefits

Almost 9 in 10 firms offer some form of a wellness program (88%), according to one survey. Yet many, if not most, employer-sponsored health plans cover the bare minimum with sleep diagnostic and treatment services.

Take sleep apnea, a life-threatening sleep disorder where breathing starts and stops. To even receive a diagnosis, an individual must undergo an in-person, overnight sleep study for the purposes of diagnosis and treatment. But even to do that, an individual must obtain a referral from their primary care physician to see a sleep specialist.

Then, after the one-night sleep study, which is an undertaking in and of itself, a person is typically prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. But that’s where the benefits end. Most patients need a considerable amount of training coaching to learn to sleep with the CPAP mask, and to use it regularly. Left to their own devices, many individuals give up.

However, when organizations themselves focus on improving sleep, beyond what health plans cover, clinical and financial outcomes often improve. For example: An 18-month study of employer-mandated obstructive sleep apnea treatment resulted in reduced medical insurance claim costs of more than $150K per year.

In 2014, San Mateo County Health Plan also saved money when it partnered with Redwood Pulmonary Medical Associates, which specializes in sleep medicine, to swap out a traditional, limited sleep apnea program, for a more holistic, patient-driven approach, that included ongoing coaching. In addition to improving outcomes, the health plan saved $1.3 million over five years.

A well workforce

So what does all of this mean to organizations with limited operating budgets that want to make a big impact? The answer depends on many variables; for example, the industry (e.g., health care, transportation, media), nature of work (office-based vs. field-based), and geographic location.

Given that, here are three ways any organization no matter where they are located can improve employees’ sleep — thereby overall — health:

1. Go beyond “wellness” perks

While perks like virtual exercise classes and company retreats are nice add-ons, they don’t necessarily get to the root employee burnout – such as working too many hours, often for less-than-desired pay, or downright exhaustion in juggling multiple responsibilities or a toxic work culture. Organizations should look at some of the sources of stress, such as salaries/compensation, work culture, or work volume, to see if there is room for improvement. Surveying workers periodically can help to identify some of the issues that are keeping them up at night.

2. Keep work flexible

Not all employees have the luxury of working from home. But for office-based workers who did work from home for more than a year, sleep was undoubtedly a silver lining. Continuing to offer telework benefits, at least part time, could do wonders. According to one pre-2020, one study, employees who were simply offered flexible work arrangement increased their sleep about one hour per week, compared with the control group. That’s 52 hours of extra z’s per year.

3. Make sleep treatment more accessible

In 2021, employers must continue to o#er accessible ways for employees to engage in their health. The emergence of programs that combine the use of wearable sleep-monitoring devices — which collect data over several nights — with analysis by lab-based sleep specialists and telehealth-based consultations, is a cost-effective intervention that can ensure workers’ poor sleep health patterns don’t go unnoticed. Ongoing telehealth-based consultations can support individuals work toward their goal (e.g., ongoing CPAP use, lifestyle optimizations, etc.). For individuals who don’t live near a sleep center, or have time constraints outside of work, such home-centered interventions are a gamechanger.

As organizations hope to pick up where they left o# in 2019, there is an opportunity to improve engagement and create healthier work cultures. Focusing on sleep is an easy “win” for organizations and their workforces and can lead to big improvements in outcomes, morale, and cost savings.

Melissa S Lim, MD, FCCP, FAASM, is the Chief Medical Officer and Co-Founder of Somnology. Patrick Yam is the CEO and Co-Founder of Somnology.