Attention Employers: Don’t Sleep On Workers’ Insomnia

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Add employee sleeping habits to the list of problems that workplace managers will have to start worrying a little more about: According to a study released earlier this month, insomnia-related workplace accidents happen more often and cost more than anyone had imagined. The report, interesting in its own right, is one more reason to think that lack of sleep may be the next great public health crisis-slash-business opportunity: As a society we seem to not be sleeping enough, and it’s costing everybody money. Or soon will, anyway.The study in question, which was led by Harvard Medical School researcher Victoria Shahly, compared insomnia with 18 other chronic conditions. (Think: diabetes, arthritis, depression, IBS …) Shaly’s team conducted a national telephone survey of  nearly 5,000 commercially insured health plan members, measuring the incidence and severity of all the conditions using claims records and/or generally accepted self-reporting scales. Their broad findings, as reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry‘s October issue: The average costs of insomnia-related accidents and errors is slightly more than $32,000. That was nearly50% more than the average cost of other accidents and errors (slightly less than $22,000).

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Moreover, the researchers summarize, “Simulations estimated that insomnia was associated with 7.2% of all costly workplace accidents and errors and 23.7% of all the costs of these incidents. These proportions are higher than for any other chronic condition.” All told, Shaly’s group estimates the annual number of  insomnia-related workplace accidents and errors at 274,000—adding up to a combined cost of  $31.1 billion. (That sound you hear is a collective shudder from the 10,000-member National Association of Safety Professionals.)

That’s a high price for sleepless nights, but it makes intuitive sense. As I’ve written before, roughly one in three working Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, according to the Center for Disease Control, and sleep-deprivation is a serious enough issue that “Increase the proportion of adults who get sufficient sleep” is one of the goals of Healthy People 2020, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program launched two years ago. As a result, the sleep-assistance industry (for lack of a better phrase) is booming, growing annually at nearly a double-digit pace and expected to hit $32 billion in 2012 by one estimate. One can expect that reports like the one from Shahly & Co. will only increase that annual number. As Mathew J. Wolf-Meyer writes about the field of sleep medicine in his excellent new book, The Slumbering Masses: Sleep Medicine and Modern American Life: “What was once uncommercialized could now be marketed to a broader and broader population, given appropriate contextualization and incentive.”

That is to say, when a problem—even (or especially) one that’s been around forever—is properly framed, there’s a lot of money to be made by selling people solutions. So far, the bulk of spending on sleep assistance has come from tired consumers and the increasing number of insurers willing to pay to help them nod off. But with confirmation that insomnia correlates strongly and expensively with workplace accidents and errors, one can expect the ranks of sleep disorder clinics, sleep consultants, sleep coaches, and other health-and-wellness solution providers to increase in number and to bombard HR departments with new ways to increase workers’ sleep and, thus, decrease the costs of those accidents and errors.

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Say hello to the new Sleep-Industrial Complex.

It’s enough to keep an employee-wellness manager up at night.