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Employee Wellness Starts with a Better Night's Sleep

SleepEmployee wellness programs (EWP) are on the rise. More than half of companies with more than 50 employees and 92 percent of companies with over 200 employees offer wellness programs.  

Employers hope the programs help their employees quit smoking, exercise more and carry out other healthy lifestyle habits to lower their risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

Proponents of EWPs say these efforts—such as Penn's Wellfocused program--make for healthier employees, greater productivity, and lower healthcare costs. Some initiatives are certainly more successful than others, leading to a constant need for improvement.

One way to improve is a focus on better sleep, researchers from Penn's Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology report in a new study in Preventive Medicine Reports. It's a critical component of a successful EWP, said co-author Michael Grander, PhD, an instructor in Psychiatry and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology.

“Numerous studies connect poor sleep quality with obesity, hypertension, diabetes, poor mental health and many other health issues,” said Grander. “Despite this, almost no employers with a wellness program offer an intervention to promote healthy sleep habits, despite significant evidence that sufficient sleep length and quality are vital.”

The research team used survey responses from 13,222 Kansas state employees and their dependents, (average age of 45, and 63 percent female).

The researchers found that participants from a wellness program who sleep poorly are actually more likely to attempt to engage in healthy lifestyle changes, but not as well equipped to carry them out as those who experience better sleep quality over a sufficient duration.

The research team looked at the connection between sleep and how people make healthy changes for different activities, including managing weight, reducing alcohol use, quitting smoking, increasing physical activity, and reducing stress.

For each of these activities, participants were asked where they were in terms of five stages of change: precontemplation (not yet considered changing behavior), contemplation (thought about changing behavior but not decided to change), preparation (decided to change but not started action), action (actually making changes), and maintenance (keeping changes more than six months). 

“Even though poor sleep quality increased motivation for engaging in healthy behaviors, poor sleep is often a good warning sign of other health problems,” said Grandner. “While we were surprised to see this increased motivation, knowing the connection between sleep and other areas of health, we were not surprised to see poor sleep associated with decreased likelihood of actually maintaining these healthy habits.”

The researchers found that poor sleep quality was associated with increased likelihood of contemplation, preparation, and in some cases action, but lower likelihood of consistently maintaining the changes needed for good health across most of these healthy behaviors.

Future studies are needed to determine whether improvements in sleep quality can improve maintenance of additional health behaviors, and to advance understanding of specifically how and why poor sleep impairs long-term healthy actions.

Siu-kuen Azor Hui of Fox Chase Cancer Center is also co-author on the study.

For more insight on Grandner’s sleep research and work by his colleague Philip Gehrman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in Psychiatry, read this story in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer.


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