An article published in October 2012 in the Journal of Sleep Research reported on a study into the separate and combined effects of symptoms of insomnia and obstructive sleep apnoea (snoring and breathing cessations) on long-term sick leave. The research was carried out with 6,892 people aged 40-45 in Norway and showed that workers who suffer either insomnia or obstructive sleep apnoea are at increased risk of sickness absence.
Insomnia can be described as the inability to fall asleep or to stay awake as long as desired. Obstructive sleep apnoea occurs when the throat muscles relax during sleep allowing the airway to collapse or become plugged by the tongue. This causes the airflow to stop and causes the person to jolt awake and gasp for air as the brain senses distress. This can go on hundreds of times a night without the person realising it.
The research in Norway showed that individuals with insomnia were twice as likely to be on subsequent sick leave as good sleepers. The increased risk of sickness absence was less pronounced for those with obstructive sleep apnoea but was still 40% higher than for good sleepers.
There is a strong connection between stress and insomnia (although not everyone who is suffering from stress has insomnia). Where a person is suffering from stress-related insomnia, there are steps they could take to reduce it, for example:
- spending some time ‘winding down’ about two hours before going to bed in order to de-stress. This means avoiding phone calls, emails, etc. and, ideally, reading, listening to music or having a bath in order to empty the mind;
- establishing a regular sleep routine of going to bed only when tired and getting up at the same time each day;
- not eating food late in the evening;
- developing a night-time relaxation routine (e.g. breathing exercises or routines to tense and relax all muscles from the toes upwards).
Obstructive sleep apnoea is not caused by stress, rather by physical factors such as the size and ‘floppiness’ of the airway and the ability of the brain to ‘remember’ to breathe. However, there is little doubt that the many possible effects of sleep apnoea (e.g. sleepiness, lack of mental alertness, hypertension) may well contribute to stress as a person struggles to cope day-to-day after prolonged periods of inadequate sleep.
Employees in an organisation who are struggling with insomnia, obstructive sleep apnoea or other sleeping disorders are unlikely to be at their most productive and, at worst, may risk a health and safety risk to themselves or others in the workplace. Guidance on various sleep disorders can be found at the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association, the National Sleep Foundation and the The Sleep Council. Alternatively, a free phone call to the Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 0 77 88 44 will connect employers and managers to an occupational health professional to discuss this and other employee health issues.