Why employers stand to gain by helping their employees sleep

Between trouble sleeping, chronic insomnia and sleep apnea, three-quarters of Canadians sleep less than the recommended seven hours a night.

“These sleep-deprived people show up to work but suffer from serious presenteeism,” Josée Dixon, executive vice-president of group and business insurance at Desjardins Insurance, told attendees at Benefits Canada’s 2017 Mental Health Summit in Toronto on Nov. 7.

Read: A call for urgency in treating mental disorders

And presenteeism is proving to be as serious a dampener on productivity as absenteeism. A study study sponsored by Desjardins calculated 28 days of presenteeism in a year for poor sleepers as opposed to three days for those who sleep well. That’s worth five weeks of work and $5,000 in lost productivity per year for each employee with insomnia.

Sleep disorders have become a serious public health problem, said Dixon. “But despite its potential adverse effects on mental health, physical well-being and productivity, sleep, or the lack of it thereof, has yet to receive the attention other chronic illnesses do.”

Research, Dixon noted, shows a close link between mental illness and sleep. “People with insomnia are 10 times more likely to have clinical depression and 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety,” she said.

In turn, mental-health problems have become the No. 1 cause of disability claims. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, absenteeism and presenteeism due to mental-health issues account for $6 billion in lost productivity.

The link between sleep disturbances and depression is so strong, Dixon added, that some researchers say doctors should be cautious about diagnosing depression if the patient doesn’t suffer from sleep complaints. Sleep disorders can also hinder treatment. “Even if the patient’s depression does improve, they have an increased risk of relapse and recurrence if their sleep problems persist.”’

Read: Workplace wellness incomplete without financial fitness

Recognizing the relationship between sleeplessness and psychological stress, Desjardins conducted a pilot project with 1,800 of its own employees. In partnership with Haleo Preventive Health Solutions Inc., the project sought to study whether treating insomnia would improve productivity and mental-health outcomes for people with depression and anxiety.

Thirty-five per cent of those contacted completed Haleo’s sleep disorder screening test. For those identified at risk, the program offered evaluation, diagnosis and treatment with registered therapists remotely through digital devices.

Desjardins’ pilot project found 89 per cent of those who went through the program and completed treatment saw improvements in their sleep, with significant reductions in the number of people ranked as having severe insomnia. Among those who completed treatment, the results also showed a roughly 50 per cent decrease in the number of people experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress.

Read: Early detection, treatment key to addressing mental disorders

“While the therapy was not intended to treat mental-health issues directly, it’s clear when you treat the sleep disorder, you also alleviate a lot of the symptoms that aggravate depression, anxiety or other mental-health issues,” said Haleo founder Bradley Smith.

And when looking at the cost of treating insomnia versus the productivity losses, Smith said the return on investment is almost immediate. “It takes just a few weeks to complete the treatment. And you can expect a return of $10 for every dollar invested in screening, support, diagnosis and treatment over a three-year period.”

Desjardins has since expanded the program to a larger group of its employees. “Given that mental-health problems are the No. 1 cause of group insurance disability claims, being able to help people before they become absent from work ― due to stress or other psychological disorders ― is very rewarding,” said Dixon.

Read more stories from the 2017 Mental Health Summit