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Is more sleep an answer to S'pore's productivity problem?

Increased automation is one way to enhance productivity, but could more sleep also be part of the solution?

Philips' latest Global Sleep Survey found that more than one in five adults now suffer from insomnia and, according to SingHealth, four in ten Singaporeans are getting less than the recommended seven hours per night on weekdays.

HOW much sleep did you get last night?

Philips' latest Global Sleep Survey found that more than one in five adults now suffer from insomnia and, according to SingHealth, four in ten Singaporeans are getting less than the recommended seven hours per night on weekdays.

With today's "always connected" corporate culture of late-night emails and international calls, it's perhaps unsurprising that the Philips study of 15,000 people across 13 countries cited workplace stress as one of the main causes of the lack of sleep.

The importance of sleep is in the spotlight as we marked World Sleep Day on March 16. But far from just being a personal issue, what goes on in the bedroom can have a big impact in the boardroom, too.

With overall labour productivity declining in Singapore in recent years, despite wages continuing to rise, Singapore is at real risk of losing its competitiveness in the region.

Increased digitisation and automation is one way to enhance productivity per employee, but could more sleep also be part of the solution?

Are your employees getting enough sleep?

For decades business leaders extolled the benefits of getting by with as little sleep as possible. Marissa Mayer, Jack Dorsey and Tom Ford are part of the so-called "sleepless elite", while Indra Nooyi, one of the world's most prominent female executives since taking the top job at PepsiCo, famously averages just four hours a night.

With only 24 hours a day, it was previously seen as a skill to be able to operate on little rest - the simple equation used to be that the less you sleep, the more you can achieve.

Thankfully, this attitude is starting to change as more research sheds light on the negative impact that lack of sleep can have on workplace productivity, and health.

The entry of millennials and Gen Z into the workforce is also forcing employers to rethink their working cultures to retain younger talent who are increasingly pushing for work-life balance over bonuses.

Arianna Huffington is at the vanguard of this nascent workplace revolution, leading the charge against what she refers to as the 21st century's "sleep deprivation crisis", but for many businesses in Singapore, this is still new territory. Given sleep is such a personal thing, what can employers do to help?

Addressing the long-held myth that long hours equate to better work is a good place to start.

In our competitive corporate culture, late nights are often wrongly associated with high performance, dedication and productivity. Some companies even reward staff for burning the midnight oil.

Studies in Singapore have also shown that even where employees are offered flexible working arrangements, many are not taking them up for fear of being judged.

Businesses need to fundamentally change this mindset so that late nights are neither expected, nor associated with high performance - and this has to be led from the top-down. Capping the number of hours employees work a week is one option, as is discouraging or banning sending emails after a certain time.

France is leading the way on the global stage with a law introduced last year that requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. Is it time for corporates in Singapore to follow suit?

Help your employees to help themselves

Educating and actively incentivising employees around healthy sleeping is another way Singapore's employers can tackle the issue, especially as many people still struggle to address sleep issues in the same way they would exercise or nutrition.

Just as the Silicon Valley giants have made it fairly common practice for employers to encourage exercise and healthy eating through initiatives like free gym passes, cycle-to-work schemes and healthy, catered meals, employers should start viewing sleep as an important health issue as well.

Our 2017 Philips Future Health Index found that 11 per cent of Singaporeans are monitoring their sleeping habits on connected devices like wearables, but despite this, 35 per cent don't know how to interpret the data. Equipping and upskilling staff to track and understand data about their sleep patterns could be an easy win for employers.

Workplace education and incentives could also be used to educate employees about common sleep disorders, too. As many as one in three Singaporeans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea - a potentially dangerous sleep disorder where a person's breathing stops and starts repeatedly while they sleep. Despite the high incidence rate, most cases go undiagnosed. It is estimated that from the 100 million people worldwide who suffer from sleep apnea, 80 per cent remain undiagnosed. One way to address this is by companies working with a healthcare provider to offer home tests for employees showing symptoms of the disorder.

The bottom-line benefits

As more and more research reveals the negative impact of sleep deprivation on both physical and mental health, Singapore's employers have a duty of care to prioritise initiatives around sleep as much as they do for their employees' diet and exercise. In doing so, they can expect a beneficial impact on their productivity and business bottom line, too.

  • The writer is CEO of Philips Asean-Pacific