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How A Flexible Work Culture Could Solve Our Sleep Problems

New research shows that for a good night’s sleep and better balanced lives, work culture needs to change.

How A Flexible Work Culture Could Solve Our Sleep Problems
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Kliokta]

Excelling at work. Spending quality time with your family. Getting enough rest. Imagine those three goals as points on a triangle–and pick two. Or so your life might feel when it gets hectic.

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Studies conducted for a Work, Family and Health Network study published in the inaugural issue of Sleep Health tie together the worlds of work, personal life, and sleep–and point to flexible work hours as an answer to balancing them all.

Researchers in the Work, Family, and Health Network gave 474 employees more flexible schedules and followed them to find out how it impacted the rest of their lives. They were allowed to sleep in and work from home, eliminating a stressful rush hour commute, and could adjust work around for time zone differences without adding to the load. Employees weren’t judged–silently or otherwise–if they weren’t sitting at desks from exactly 9-5 every day. After a year, researchers found that workers were getting an hour more sleep per week. But most importantly, they felt like they were getting a better nights’ sleep.

The intervention was more about awareness of a personal life, and less about punching a clock every day for the sake of “time on task,” lead researcher Orfeu M. Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, told Fast Company. “Managers have to convey their priorities to their employees and then they can become more aware and sympathetic to work family needs [of their employees]. This may also improve productivity.”

The CDC calls insufficient sleep a “public health epidemic,” with 40% of Americans getting less than seven hours a night. The Work, Family and Health Network studies didn’t specifically set out to improve or address sleep, says Ryan Olson, PhD, of Oregon Health & Science University, but their interventions benefited sleep.

Work-family conflicts increased insomnia and decreased sufficient sleep, the research notes. With a more accepting work culture, those problems resolved–good news for everyone involved. “In the absence of sufficient sleep, we are not as attentive or alert,” Buxton says in a press release, “we process information more slowly, miss or misinterpret social and emotional cues and decision making is impaired.”

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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