Sleep apnea is a growing problem that is both under-treated and under-diagnosed. It affects every aspect of a person’s life, including their job performance, a fact that poses a huge issue for employers in terms of workplace safety, productivity, and risk management. And, many companies are trying to combat those issues through the use of various technologies — learn more in 5 Sleep Apnea Technologies Companies Are Testing On Workers. Here are 8 things you need to know about sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is more common than you think

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is affecting an increasing number of Americans. In terms of chronic disease, it has a similar prevalence to asthma and diabetes. Consider these statistics:

Sleep apnea is rarely diagnosed

The majority of employees suffering from sleep apnea, 80% by most estimates, remain undiagnosed. This often compounds some of the more serious side effects of the illness including high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, depression and an increased risk of stroke or heart failure.

There is a growing awareness of the role that sleep plays in our general health but missed diagnosis of sleep related conditions like sleep apnea remains disturbingly common. Often patients will fail to report symptoms to their doctors, believing their problem is just a poor night’s sleep. Doctors themselves may also fail to recognize the symptoms or fail to link comorbidities like diabetes and high blood pressure to sleep apnea. (Learn more in 7 Fascinating Facts about Sleep Apnea and Workplace Safety).

Women are particularly at risk for not being diagnosed. There are likely several reasons for this. Women tend to present with different symptoms, tend not to have the stereotypical body shape and often don’t report feeling sleepy. Women are more apt to be diagnosed with depression or insomnia when in fact the real problem is actually sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is not a symptomless condition

Despite the high numbers of undiagnosed sleep apnea, there are many warning signs for the condition. Here are few:

  • Obesity (>30 BMI)
  • Large neck circumference (17” for men and 16” for women)
  • Smoking
  • Excessive use of alcohol or sedatives
  • Loud snoring
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Choking or gasping sounds while sleeping
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Loss of sexual interest

Sleep apnea is an expensive condition

Sleep apnea is costing you money. The economic burden of undiagnosed sleep apnea has been estimated at $149.6 billion. This number includes productivity losses and workplace incidents. It also includes an extra $30 billion in additional health care costs. But some additional potential costs to you, such as absenteeism and worker errors, are difficult to quantify and are often left out of cost estimates.

Sleep apnea affects workplace productivity

Workers suffering from sleep apnea tend to be distracted and suffer from memory loss and reduced energy, so it’s hardly surprising that it influences workplace productivity. What is surprising is just how large that impact is. Lost productivity from sleep apnea is thought to cost the U.S. economy an estimated $86.9 billion.

There is also evidence that sleep apnea increases presenteeism in the workplace. Other studies have demonstrated strong links between sleep apnea and lost workdays (absenteeism) and disability. For employers, the impacts are doubled. First, you lose a trained, experienced worker and second, you are faced with the increased costs of training a new worker and the additional productivity that is lost while that new employee gets up to speed.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Diagnosis and treatment can have a direct impact on workplace productivity and absenteeism. For example, in one study of 506 patients who participated in workplace testing and treatment for sleep apnea, most reported increased productivity and a reported 40% decline in workplace absence.

Sleep apnea increases the risk of workers accidents

Sleep apnea accounts for $6.5 billion in workplace incidents. That number skyrockets when workers are combined with vehicles. Sleep apnea is thought to cost an additional $26.2 billion in motor vehicle accidents and people with sleep apnea are 10 times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident. Commercial motor vehicle drivers such as commercial truck drivers and public transportation drivers are thought to be at increased risk and in fact, commercial truck drivers, have higher rates of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea affects your brain

It’s not just you — sleepiness does affect your cognitive abilities. With sleep apnea the effects of this can be devastating, particularly in the workplaces where attention to detail or complex tasks are involved. And, the potential impairment is extensive. Studies suggest that sleep apnea affects inductive and deductive reasoning, attention, vigilance, learning, and memory. Although the Social Securities Administration (SSA) no longer has sleep apnea listed as a condition to qualify for disability benefits, workers can qualify if their mental impairment, breathing, or heart problems are severe enough.

Sleep apnea is a treatable condition

Most of the effects of sleep apnea can be reversed with treatment and it is possible to cure the condition itself. Although the federal government recently shelved plans to require testing of commercial drivers and train operators, sleep apnea testing and treatment might be a good risk management strategy for some businesses. Studies indicate that workers who are diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea have lower health care plan costs, less absenteeism and markedly fewer short term disability costs. With commercial drivers, some studies have suggested that companies who invest in testing can save over $3 for every $1 spent on testing in collision and associated costs.

Here are a few of the most common recommendations for treating sleep apnea:

  • Weight loss
  • Continual Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy
  • Dental appliances to reposition the lower jaw and tongue
  • Implanted devices similar to pacemakers which control tongue movement and sensor breathing
  • Nasal expiratory positive airway pressure using disposable nasal valves