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The importance of sleep: Why sleep deprivation is reaching epidemic levels

Interview with Els van der Helm, Sleep expert and co-founder of Shleep

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European Business: What should leaders know about the importance of sleep and what should they teach their employees?

Els van der Helm: Sleep is important for a number of reasons: The most critical thing is that it impacts organizations and also their bottom-line in several ways. I would categorize these under four headings: productivity and performance, retention and recruiting, health care costs and safety.

In terms of productivity and performance: Sleep really affects people´s IQ and EQ. Under IQ you can see its impact on decision making, it´s harder to make the right decisions and be creative, people are less engaged and overall leadership performance goes down. When you think about EQ, sleep deprivation has a big impact on your ability to read emotions in others but also to manage your own emotions. Trust, empathy and ethical behaviours are also part of it. It has an enormous impact on how people perform at work and how they work together, whether it’s with their team members or clients.

Recruitment and retention are also important. More and more people want a good work-life balance. We see a lot of our clients struggling to keep their high performers because they want to go to other companies where they feel like they will have a better work-life balance. Being able to show that they value good sleep is a good recruitment tool for companies Then there are health care costs. Sleep deprivation has a big impact on both physical and mental health.

In terms of physical health, there is almost no disease that sleep does not effect, things like dementia, diabetes and cancer but also mental health. This is a really big topic right now in North America and the UK. It is why more and more employers are stepping up when it comes to mental health. What we see is, when people are sleep deprived, they have a much higher chance of developing depression and anxiety disorder. There is a higher risk of suicide, ADHD symptoms or loneliness.

The final area is safety. When people are tired the risk of an accident goes up dramatically. For some company’s safety is critical, when you think about handling machinery, driving cars or working in a factory.



European Business: How do you develop and enhance the programs and workshops you offer at Shleep?

Els van der Helm: It is really important for employers to realize that they share responsibility. The problem isn´t just employees not sleeping well and not prioritizing their own sleep et cetera, it is also often the role the employer plays. A lot of our clients complain that they feel like there is a 24/7 culture at the company. They feel like they always have to be on call and respond immediately to emails. When we work with our clients, we really focus on those responsibility areas. We help the client in showing them what the company can do to change their culture around sleep so that sleep is really valued. But also, the employees should take responsibility and change their poor sleeping habits. For example, watching Netflix for three hours in the evening might not be the best thing to get good sleep.

European Business: We had an interview with author Vicki Culpin about her book “The business of sleep”. She said: “To make sure you are getting the right amount of sleep, and the right quality of sleep, you need,you often have to make choices, and prioritise sleep over other activities.” Do you agree with that?

Els van der Helm: Yes, I do. At the end of the day, we all have to make a trade-off and I think most of the time the trade-off should be that you prioritize sleep. But of course, you are not able to prioritize sleep every single night over everything else in your life. What we aim for is that people get a good night of sleep at least 75% of the time and we accept that there are some nights you don´t get that much sleep for whatever reason. But we really focus on the 75% to make sure you usually get enough sleep. Sometimes you prioritize a party or a nice bottle of wine with your partner and that´s fine. You can compare it to the trade-off you have to make with nutrition.

Everyone knows the things they should be eating and the ones they should be avoiding. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with having dessert every so often if most of time you eat healthily. With nutrition people are really well informed but when it comes to sleep people are really unaware. They don’t realize if they stay up an hour longer to watch Netflix or to work and finish one more thing, they are not aware of the impact on their physical health, their mental health and their productivity the next day. That is something we really try to make much clearer to make well-informed decisions.

Els van der Helm
"Sleep deprivation is epidemic at the moment. We know that 35% of people say they sleep six hours or less a night." Els van der HelmSleep expert and co-founder of shleep

European Business: Is sleep deprivation omnipresent in our society and what can society do against it?

Els van der Helm: Sleep deprivation is an epidemic at the moment. We know that 35% of people say they sleep six hours or less a night despite seven to nine hours being the recommended amount. We also know that 48% of people complain that they have trouble with their sleep at least one night a week. And finally, we know that 38% of people admit to having fallen asleep unintentionally during the last month. That is quite shocking. It is really dangerous for everyone, not just companies but also for the wider society.

We are trying to be part of the solution and we try to be the solution through companies. We feel that in 2019 it can quite hard to convince the people who are unaware that they are not sleeping enough to do something about it.

We try to find ways to reach them and we find that doing it through employers is very effective. You can also target the environment around them. For example, an employee working with us receives an email through his employer, their colleagues will join, the manager joins in. There might be signs in the cafeteria, next to the coffee machine. They get an email every week, they use an app together with their colleagues. There is a lot of reinforcement, reminders to prioritize sleep and work on it, that´s one of the most effective ways to help people to sleep.

Of course, there needs to be more attention on educating kids on the importance of sleep so that we can prevent the same thing happening in the current generation. We make them much more aware of the importance of sleep from an early age. As a company we don’t do that yet, we currently focus on B2B, but I would love to do that in the future with our start-up. We can´t do that right now but I think it is something that should be focused on.

Els van der Helm
"There needs to be more attention on educating kids on the importance of sleep so that we can prevent the same thing happening in the current generation." Els van der HelmSleep expert and co-founder of Shleep

European Business: What´s your personal evening routine to fall asleep quicker and have healthier sleep in general?

Els van der Helm: For me, unplugged time is really important. I also exercise. I have a 30-minute bike ride home after work and that allows me to actively uncouple from work but also to get exercise at the same time. When I come home, I try to not work and also try to use my phone as little as possible. I just had my daughter five months ago, that makes me much more stable in my sleeping rhythm because she really has a consistent wake-up time at 6:30 am. I have never felt better in terms of my sleep. What´s also great, is that the bike ride in the morning helps me to keep an early schedule.

Interview: Vera Gaidies | Photos: Shleep