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Is insomnia affecting your job?

If you're struggling to stay awake at work, you're not alone - figures from the Royal Society for Public Health reveal 40% of us aren't getting enough sleep, while many people may be missing out on an hour's sleep a night; that adds up to a whole night of lost sleep by the end of the week.

Not only is insomnia a major cause of accidents at work, it causes 200,000 sick days, costing the UK economy £40 billion every year. "We are the second most sleep-deprived nation in the world, after the US," says Rachel McGuinness, a sleep expert and cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTI) therapist.

Apart from the impact at work, a lack of sleep raises our risk of chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression, cancer, heart disease and obesity. "A good night's sleep really is the number one thing we can do for our health," says McGuinness.

But does your boss have a responsibility to support you if you are experiencing insomnia? Or is it something we need to deal with by ourselves?

What can my employer do?

Many companies are now waking up to the idea that better sleep = better employees. US insurance firm Aetna encourages its staff to sign up for a reward scheme that pays them £225 a year for getting seven hours sleep a night, while Google's headquarters in London feature 'sleep pods' so workers can doze during the day.

"However, sleep rooms and sleep pods might just be a ruse to get employees to stay longer at work," says McGuinness. "If your company offers them, make sure you're only using them for a quick power nap and not to replace sleeping in your own bed at night."

Acas, the advisory and arbitration service, says employers have a duty of care to their workforce to ensure their well-being - this may be particularly relevant if you work night shifts that can disrupt sleep patterns. Ask your HR department if you want to know what your employer's responsibilities are.

Your employer may also have a duty to make sure you're not working excessive hours. This can affect your sleep, either by limiting the amount of time you're at home, or because you spend so much time worrying about work that it impacts on your sleep.

France and Germany have already banned managers from calling or emailing staff out of hours to help prevent employee burn-out, so you could try mentioning a similar idea to your boss.

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What can I do?

Acas says that employees also have a responsibility for their own health and safety at work. If you are experiencing insomnia, it's worth warning your employers that you may be struggling for the next few weeks.

A lack of sleep can affect your concentration and attention span, increasing the risk of accidents and impairing your decision-making. McGuinness says, "We need between seven and nine hours' sleep a night - 50% of this is light sleep, 20% is deep sleep, 25% is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and 5% is naturally waking up.

"REM sleep is really important, as this is when your brain moves memories and experiences from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Not getting enough REM sleep means you won't file things away properly and it becomes harder to retrieve them."

It's important to follow a good sleep hygiene routine to help prevent insomnia and get the sleep you need.

Try these expert tips

  • Stop using laptops, smart phones or tablets one to two hours before bed - the blue light emitted from the screens can disrupt the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep. While you might think you're getting ahead by checking your emails, a lack of sleep will actually leave you less able to do your job properly in the morning.
  • Cut down on caffeine - in 2013, American researchers found that drinking coffee even six hours before bed can disrupt your sleep patterns. Another study published in Science Translational Medicine in 2015 found drinking a double espresso three hours before bed could turn your body clock back by an hour.
  • Keep your bedroom clean, tidy and a relaxing place to be - McGuinness says, "Your bedroom should just be for sleep and sex. Don't use part of it as an office, or you'll be thinking about work before you go to sleep and as soon as you wake up."
  • Don't watch TV in bed - the light emitted from the screen can affect melatonin production, and if you're watching something scary or exciting, this doesn't give your brain time to wind down before sleep. Avoid binge watching your favourite series too; you'll be saying 'one more episode' till the small hours, disrupting your natural sleep patterns even further.
  • Respect the body's natural drive to fall asleep - McGuinness says, "Burning the candle at both ends means you could eventually burn out."

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