When employees get less than seven hours of sleep in a night they can feel the effects in the morning: drowsiness, mental fog, slower response times. An occasional “off” day can be forgiven. (Learn more in 6 Ways Employers Can Help Their Employees Sleep Better At Night). But, if an employee regularly appears to be sleep deprived, that could be a sign of a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, and a potentially serious health problem.

For employers, sleep disorders are costly in terms of lost productivity and increased health care utilization costs.

RAND estimates that 1.2 million working days per year in the United States are lost due to poor sleep hygiene. For Canada, the estimate is 80,000 working days lost.

The National Safety Council, in reporting the extra costs employers bear when employees have sleep disorders, estimates that healthcare costs an additional $3,000 each year for an employee with sleep apnea.

Sleep Disorders Impact Health And Safety In The Workplace

Sleep disorders have a serious impact on health, productivity, and safety in the workplace.

Most immediately, lack of sleep can undermine workplace safety and productivity. (Learn more in 7 Fascinating Facts About Sleep Apnea And Workplace Safety). Employees who don’t get enough sleep can:

  • Experience drowsiness
  • Be easily distracted
  • Make more mistakes
  • Have slower response times
  • Show poor judgement

All of these impairments can lead to accidents and errors. At its worst, sleep deprivation can look like intoxication.

In the long run, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems, including:

The 3 Types of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders. It is a sleep disorder in which a person repeatedly stops breathing throughout the night while they try to sleep.

There are three main types of sleep apnea, each with its own cause:

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by the muscles at the back of the throat relaxing and closing up the airway.

Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain not sending proper signals to the muscles that control breathing, so the body stops making an effort to breath. This form of sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea.

Complex sleep apnea is caused by some combination of muscles relaxing and interrupted brain signals.

The most common symptoms of sleep apnea are:

  • Loud snoring
  • Gasping for breath during sleep
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Feeling fatigued during the day

Diagnosing sleep apnea requires a sleep study which monitors the person’s sleep throughout the night. To do this, the person is connected to medical equipment that monitors breathing, brain activity, and blood oxygen levels. Sleep studies can happen in a sleep lab, or in certain circumstances, at home.

Common Treatments For Sleep Apnea

Treatments for sleep apnea can include:

  • Medical therapies
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Some combination of above

Medical therapies

Medical therapies aim to keep the air passage open with the aid of a medical device, oral appliance, or surgery.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines are the most common medical device prescribed for sleep apnea. The person wears a face mask while sleeping and the CPAP pumps air into their nasal passages in order to keep the airway clear and breathing uninterrupted.

Oral appliances, fitted by an orthodontist or dentist, are worn while sleeping. Two common oral appliances are the MAD (Mandibular Advancement Device) and the Tongue Retaining Device. MADs look like a teeth guard worn for contact sports and limit jaw movement. The Tongue Retaining Device holds the tongue in place so that the airway stays open.

In the most extreme cases, surgery can be used to treat sleep apnea. UPPP (uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) opens up the air passage by removing tissue from the soft palate, pharynx and, if necessary, the tonsils.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes aimed at relieving sleep disturbances, including sleep apnea, include:

  • Weight loss
  • Exercise
  • Avoiding alcohol and certain medications
  • Sleeping in a position other than on your back
  • Smoking cessation

These lifestyle changes are aimed at improving overall sleep hygiene, making it more likely the person will get a good night’s sleep.

How To Combat Sleep Apnea In The Workplace

Employers can do a number of things to encourage healthy sleep hygiene among their workers and help them avoid serious sleep disorders, like sleep apnea.

  1. Educate your managers and employees. Include information about the symptoms and seriousness of sleep disorders as part of wellness programs. Make sure everyone understands the workplace dangers created by lack of sleep.
  2. Provide resources for diagnosis and treatment. Through EAP and health insurance, make it possible for employees to get diagnosed and receive treatment when sleep apnea is suspected.
  3. Pay particular attention to shift workers. Shift work can disrupt sleep patterns and circadian rhythms, creating poor sleep hygiene leading to sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Make shift schedules regular and predictable. Rotate workers through shifts so that no one is permanently on the night shift. Provide regular rest breaks on all shifts so that workers can take a stretch and relax a bit.

Support Healthful Lifestyle Habits In The Workplace

Providing a work environment that supports healthful eating, regular physical exercise, and mental breaks will encourage the overall health of employees. (Learn more in Encouraging Employees To Achieve Healthy Eating And Fitness Goals in the Workplace). These habits also encourage good sleep hygiene, making it easier to avoid the dangers presented by sleep-deprived workers.