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Sleep deprivation is an issue that is often ignored. But when examined closely, it is frequently the root cause of decreased productivity, injuries, accidents and mistakes that cost companies millions of ringgit each year.
Yet, in a typical Asian working environment, it is common to see employees pushing back bedtime to cram in more work to meet unforgiving deadlines.
And it is no different in Malaysia. According to the Malaysia’s Healthiest Workplace by AIA Vitality 2019 survey, the first science-backed survey commissioned by AIA that analyses the productivity of 230 Malaysian companies as well as the health of their 17,595 employees, 53% of the employees polled get less than seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Seven hours is the optimal level of sleep from both a health and productivity perspective.
That means more than half of Malaysian employees go to work feeling sleep-deprived. Not getting enough rest means an employee will be carrying out work in a daze and without sufficient alertness or energy. Evidently, the survey reported that 17% of employees in Malaysia feel tired or fatigued daily.
“If you are not getting enough sleep, you definitely cannot perform [at work]. You are already coming in tired and in a bad mood, so your social interaction with your colleagues is not going to be good,” says Pantai Hospital consultant otorhinolaryngologist Dr Jeevanan Jahendran.
“That is what we see in most working environments: People are just very grumpy and irritable. Most people in the Klang Valley are not getting good sleep. It’s a huge problem and not something that we should be taking lightly,” says Jeevanan.
The quality of sleep is also important, he says. Sleep quality is basically one’s satisfaction with the sleep experience, which should translate into feeling good when one wakes up from sleep. It is affected by factors such as how one falls asleep, how one maintains sleep and how fresh one feels when one wakes up.
“Some of my patients have blocked noses and suffer from fragmented sleep. So, he or she can sleep for eight or nine hours but still wake up feeling tired. Fragmented sleep means that over their sleep period, they get a lot of interruptions during their sleep cycle; so they get very poor-quality sleep. More important than the duration is actually how they sleep,” Jeevanan says.
Clearly, a worker who is not getting good-quality sleep will see reduced performance and alertness at work, he notes.
And if sleep deprivation is accumulated over a long period — which means an individual gets less than the recommended seven hours of sleep over multiple, consecutive nights — it may lead to a whole host of health problems, says Associate Professor Dr Wee Lei Hum, a health behavioural specialist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faculty of Health Sciences. These include diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Sleep deprivation accumulated over a long period also increases the probability of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, besides impairing one’s attention, working memory and decision-making ability to divide attention between multiple tasks.
Yet, such sleep deprivation, says Wee, is very common in the general population. This is despite many experts highlighting that getting enough sleep is such an important aspect of one’s well-being that it is not a luxury but a necessity for good health.
“We have a very bad work culture. We seem to be rewarding people who overwork. We encourage overtime,” says Jeevanan.
According to Wee, such a culture of overworking will eventually lead to workplace burnout, which will create even more health problems for employees. “If left unattended, burnout can make it challenging for individuals to cope in their daily as well as work lives,” says Wee.
The rise of ‘hustle-mania’ among younger workers
Sleep deprivation is closely linked to overworking, and it is interesting to observe that there seems to be a “hustle-mania” culture or “never stop hustling” attitude that has been romanticised by a young generation of workers, which causes them to seek self-worth from spending more time at work at the expense of overall health and well-being.
It is a culture that is obsessed with striving and is relentlessly positive and ambitious. Behind this “toil glamour”, as some media reports have termed it, is an increased expectation of success.
So, not surprisingly, the Malaysia’s Healthiest Workplace by AIA Vitality 2019 survey has found that the highest percentage of employees reporting poor or very poor quality of sleep in Malaysia were those in the 18-20, 21-25 and 26-30 age range.
Wee says overworking — that is, working more than 40 hours per week — may stem from the idea that it will lead to bonuses, promotions and career mobility by signalling commitment and productivity to employers, improving the work experience and creating opportunities to build and use social networks.
“Overwork signals productivity and commitment to employers, and provides more opportunities to network with co-workers, clients and potential clients. These advantages increase the size of bonuses and raises, and the likelihood of promotions, and improve access to other higher-paying jobs — all of which have long-term income advantages,” she says, adding that this idea is especially prevalent among young workers who are just starting their career.
The advancement of technology in a fast-changing world has also become a double-edged sword in this instance, says Wee. While it has made work-related communication and processes more efficient, the unintended consequences of that include regular work interruptions, task accumulation and the increased unpredictability of work demands. “One research has demonstrated that employee well-being is negatively impacted by communication technologies as a result of increased demands and stress associated with the expectation of continuous connectivity and responsiveness,” Wee says.
On top of that, there are rising cost of living and economic challenges. These, together with permanent full-time jobs with good benefits becoming more difficult to find, have led to a heightened sense of job insecurity. This causes increased competition among new workers, which in turn leads to the tendency to work longer hours to show commitment and professional competence.
“Yes, it’s a much more complex problem because we need to talk about the financial situation and earning capacity of employees. People are taking two jobs now because they cannot make ends meet. So they overwork to make a living to support their family, but they are compromising their own health,” Jeevanan says.
Other factors that drive overworking may be industry- or occupation-specific. Jeevanan himself used to overwork himself during his housemanship some 24 years ago, owing to the demand of the medical industry. As a young doctor, he used to work 36-hour shifts, clocking in at 6am and leaving work at 6pm the following day.
“I used to be so tired when I came home from work that I would just go straight to my room and sleep. During that period, I met with two road accidents because I fell asleep on the wheel,” he says.
Everyone, not only young workers, has to realise that a lot of issues at work originate from lack of sleep, says Jeevanan. “We need to make people aware and we need to sort of connect the dots by saying, ‘look, your symptoms [or problems] here are not because you’re tired or stressed, it’s because you’re not getting enough sleep’. We need to get that idea across.”
Working long hours does not necessarily result in better productivity and quality of work, Wee stresses. In fact, individuals tend to work with greater efficacy in shorter hours, she says. “A study has shown that longer working hours positively correlated with both physiological and psychological health symptoms. These health symptoms in the workplace could lead to absenteeism and presenteeism, which eventually result in lower work productivity.”
Absenteeism refers to when an employee is absent from work. It is a good indicator of the health of an employee, taking into account absences due to sickness or health problems. Presenteeism, on the other hand, is when an employee is present in the workplace but is not productive because of health issues, loss of concentration from lack of sleep or stress, among others.
In the Malaysia’s Healthiest Workplace by AIA Vitality 2019 survey, the monthly cost of health-related absence and presenteeism is estimated to be RM1.46 million per organisation.
Addressing work-life integration has become increasingly obvious and critical. If organisations are to attract and retain the best talent, motivate their workforce and increase productivity, they need to be seen to actively respect individuals’ rights to a fulfilling life outside work.”
- Associate Professor Dr Wee Lei Hum
Health behavioural specialist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faculty of Health Sciences
People who take time off to rest are perceived as being lazy and not working hard. That’s our culture in Asia. We don’t seem to realise that it’s actually the other way around. When you actually give employees time off, they will be more rested to be more productive at work.”
- Dr Jeevanan Jahendran
Consultant otorhinolaryngologist at Pantai Hospital
Breaking away from the culture of overworking
The issue of the never-ending glorification of overworking is that each cohort of overworkers raises the bar. This causes the next generation of employees to have to work even harder to impress their bosses, while expectations for young employees increase, along with work demands.
The modern work environment is obsessed with “the grind”, so much so that it has become a race between employees to see who is the busiest, the most burnt out and the most sleep-deprived. Associate Professor Dr Wee Lei Hum, a health behavioural specialist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faculty of Health Sciences, says employers can still encourage productivity in the workplace without glorifying overworking.
For starters, she suggests that companies implement sleep recovery practices. Better sleep is one of the easiest and least-used ways to improve productivity, she says, as sleep is critical to functioning effectively and for recovery.
“Companies such as Google and HuffPost cultivate a pro-napping culture by providing nap pods, nap rooms and flexible work hours to allow employees to rest when needed. Some companies employ educational strategies to help employees better understand the factors contributing to good sleep, while others offer health programmes that reward their employees for resting well.
“For example in Malaysia, AIA, through its AIA Vitality programme, gives points to its employees who sleep at least seven hours per night,” says Wee.
But by and large, people who take time off to rest are perceived as being lazy and not working hard, says Pantai Hospital consultant otorhinolaryngologist Dr Jeevanan Jahendran. “That’s our culture in Asia. We don’t seem to realise that it’s actually the other way around. When you actually give employees time off, they will be more rested to be more productive at work,” he adds.
To address the issue of overworked and sleep-deprived employees, sleep management must be addressed first, he says. This is where education on sleep management is crucial to raise awareness among both employers and employees about the importance of sleep and how it affects the work environment.
“Companies themselves should be educated, because employers are very ill-informed and poorly advised about the importance of sleep, and the best way to do it is to incorporate this into wellness programmes,” he says. He adds that he includes sleep education in the wellness programmes he runs for the employees of private companies in which he is the appointed health consultant.
Another way employers can help break the cycle of overworking is by encouraging mental recovery practices among employees, which will help them be calm and focused, as well as increase their mental capacity, says Wee. She points to “mindfulness” as one form of mental recovery that has been proven to be particularly helpful. “The term ‘mindfulness’ covers a range of techniques. Common practices include mindful breathing exercises, meditation, mindful walking, mindful eating, body scans and mindful journalling,” she says.
Wellness speaker Jojo Struys, who is a proponent of mindfulness via meditation and breathwork, believes a person’s wellness and overall well-being is all-encompassing and multi-faceted.
This means one has to ensure that one lives healthily in every aspect of one’s life. “Even if you’re eating right, even if you’re exercising, but if you’ve got a lot of stress, that might keep you awake at night, and not having enough sleep could make you feel terrible when you wake up in the morning,” says Struys.
She also emphasises the need to identify where the stress is coming from, and in doing so, one must be honest with oneself.
“This is when you journey inwards. Sometimes, to find out what’s really bothering you, you just need to slow down. Slowing down could mean taking a walk in nature. It could mean developing a meditation regiment because when the mind is silent and still, clarity might come,” she says.
There are those who choose to bury their heads in distractions to escape from their problems, but this will not help in identifying the root cause of where the stress is coming from. “That’s when you start to see it affecting a person’s health in different ways,” Struys says.
Individuals have to take responsibility for their health and make habitual and lifestyle changes, says Jeevanan. “Unfortunately, most Malaysians think that health is something they can always get by going to the doctor for medicine to cure their problems. It is not. It has to be self-enforced and it has to come from within. It is every individual’s responsibility to achieve good health,” he adds.
The responsibility to ensure work-life integration rests upon the shoulders of employers more than that of employees, Wee says. This is because expectations from employers make employees feel that there is constant pressure to prove their worth so that they are not included in the next downsizing initiative, she explains.
At the same time, the end of the “job for life” era and rising awareness have alerted many employees to the freedom they have in making choices about the type of employer they want to work for.
“So addressing work-life integration has become increasingly obvious and critical. If organisations are to attract and retain the best talent, motivate their workforce and increase productivity, they need to be seen to actively respect individuals’ rights to a fulfilling life outside work,” Wee notes.