Sleepless in Safety: Insomnia in Workplace Environments

       Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial to our daily routine as it plays a vital role in recharging both our bodies and minds. However, getting stuck in an endless cycle of counting sheep can get in the way of revitalizing these physical and mental states.

       Insomnia, defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, affects up to 30% of the general population. But what causes this frustrating and exhausting sleep disorder? What are its repercussions on day-to-day life, and what about insomnia in the workplace? The impact of sleep disturbances on job performance, safety, and overall well-being is significant, making it an important topic to address. In this post, we explore the causes of insomnia, its effects on daily functioning, and the role it plays in the workplace.

Defining insomnia and its effects

       Clinical Insomnia Disorder is defined by a set of symptoms that we may all have experienced: difficulties initiating sleep or waking up from sleep during the night or earlier in the morning than one would like, after which not being able to resume sleep easily (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). However, insomnia disorder is not to be confused with the incidental bad night of sleep: people suffering from chronic insomnia experience these sleep problems at least three nights a week, for a period of three months or more, even when the circumstances and opportunities for sleep are ideal. Moreover, the diagnosis requires these sleep problems to subjectively cause difficulties with daytime functioning or well-being (International Classification of Sleep Disorders, 2014).

Causes of insomnia

       Insomnia is not simply a result of a single cause but rather a complex interaction between multiple biological, psychological, and social factors (Spielman et al., 1987 ; Morin & Benca, 2012).

       Biological factors that can contribute to insomnia include disruptions in the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, hormonal imbalances, and sometimes even medical conditions such as chronic pain or respiratory problems. Research found that genetic variants, brain structure, and brain function play a role in the proneness in developing insomnia, too (Van Someren, 2021).

       Psychological factors that may contribute to insomnia include anxiety, depression, stress, and negative beliefs about sleep. Early life stress and major life events may be key elements in this, though the development of insomnia does not always have a clearly identifiable cause. Psychological factors can interfere with a person’s ability to relax and fall asleep, leading to chronic sleep difficulties.

       Social factors that can contribute to insomnia include lifestyle factors and behavioral habits such as irregular sleep schedules, excessive caffeine or alcohol use, and exposure to electronic devices before bedtime.

       An interaction of these factors can produce a framework causing and maintaining insomnia symptoms: causes reinforce each other and quickly become consequences themselves, resulting in a vicious circle of maladaptive factors.

Insomnia in the workplace

       Systematic reviews and meta-analyses prove that independent of age, gender, and the presence of comorbid psychiatric disorders, suffering from insomnia is associated with poorer overall cognitive performance (Taylor & Pruiksma, 2014 ; Wardle-Pinkston et al., 2019 ; Behrens et al., 2023). Individuals with insomnia show lower cognitive performance compared to those without insomnia, especially for individuals suffering from chronic insomnia compared to those with acute or transient insomnia. Specifically, individuals with insomnia showed impairments in attention, working memory, verbal fluency, and processing speed. These findings suggest that the management and treatment of insomnia should be a priority, not only to improve sleep quality but also to enhance cognitive performance and overall well-being.

       In the workplace, insomnia is a growing concern. As it can lead to decreased productivity, reduced job performance, and an increased risk of accidents and errors, the disorder can have a significant impact on both employees and their employers. Insomnia can also contribute to absenteeism (being habitually or systematically absent from the workplace), presenteeism (being present at work but not fully engaged or productive), and higher healthcare costs.

       Additionally to previously mentioned factors, insomnia can be caused by a variety of work-related factors, such as job stress, shift work, long work hours, and job insecurity (Bos & Macedo, 2019). What makes work-related insomnia particularly challenging is that the stressors that trigger insomnia often cannot be avoided, and people may feel pressure to perform well on the job despite their lack of sleep. Studies found that work stress was positively associated with subsequent insomnia symptoms, and that insomnia symptoms were also positively associated with subsequent work stress (Garefelt et al., 2020). Evidence of a bidirectional relationship between both was found, suggesting that work stress and insomnia symptoms may mutually reinforce each other over time. This suggests interventions targeting work stress may be useful in preventing and managing insomnia symptoms, and vice versa.

       Individuals suffering from insomnia disorder can treat their insomnia complaints through a highly effective, evidence-based short-term therapy plan called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i). In parallel, the symptoms of insomnia can be taken care of in a more systemic way. Employers can take several steps to help their employees manage insomnia and improve their sleep quality: they can provide education and training on healthy sleep habits, offer flexible work schedules, and provide quiet spaces for employees to rest during breaks. Employers can also encourage open communication and support employees who are struggling with insomnia by offering employee assistance programs, mental health resources, and access to healthcare professionals. Recent studies suggest that treatment of insomnia may prove to add significantly as a preventive strategy to combat the global burden of mental disorders (Riemann et al., 2022). More globally, designing work schedules that prevent sleep disorders of all sorts proves to be an important step forward.

Take aways

       In conclusion, insomnia is a sleep disorder that affects a significant portion of the population and can have a severe impact on daily functioning, including in the workplace. While the causes of insomnia are complex and multifaceted, understanding the biological, psychological, and social factors that contribute to the disorder is crucial in developing effective treatment strategies. Moreover, recognizing the implications of insomnia on job performance, safety, and overall well-being is essential for individuals and organizations alike. If you think you suffer from insomnia disorder or recognized yourself in this article, it may be advisable to seek assistance. Through interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy, healthy sleep education, and workplace accommodations, individuals and employers can take steps to manage and prevent the negative effects of insomnia.

       It’s time to prioritize our sleep, and in doing so, we can enhance our cognitive performance, our overall well-being, and our quality of life.