How much sleep did you get last night?

I read an interesting BBC news article the other day about a company that actually pays its staff extra if they get a good night’s sleep. And the more I looked into it, the more I liked the idea…

We’ve all known about the value of a good night’s sleep since we were children. As adults, we ignore this at our peril.

Turning up for work after only a few hours’ sleep the night before is never a great idea. It’s a bit like turning up with a hangover: tired, groggy, irritable and lacking in focus (not that I have any personal experience of this heinous crime, of course). And that’s not great for the sleep-deprived person’s well-rested colleagues… or for the bottom line.

When it comes to helping employees understand the value of sleep to business, US health insurance giant Aetna is way ahead of the curve, because it actually rewards workers who don’t scrimp on their sleep.

So how does the scheme work? Employees get $25 for every 20 nights of seven hours’ sleep or more. It’s capped at $300 a year (don’t get out your calculator… it’s 240). Which also begs the question: how on earth can Aetna measure its employees’ sleep patterns?

If, like me, mental images of George Orwell’s super-scary Thought Police spring to mind, you’ll be pleased to know that Aetna’s approach is far gentler. The company uses a variety of methods to track sleep, including some employees choosing to wear a Fitbit Tracker wristband that’s linked to Aetna’s wellness programme. Or they can key in the amount of sleep they’ve had.

Aha… so it boils down to a question of honesty, does it? Cue the wry smile on the face of Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini, during his interview on CNBC’s “Squawk box”, as he says: “Well, we assume positive intent in everything everyone does.”

It’s pure genius. Talking of which, did you know that Albert Einstein is reported to have slept for 10 hours each night? Unless he was mulling over a particularly tricky idea, of course, in which case he needed an extra hour (he used to say that dreaming helped him invent). And that’s not all, because he was also a big fan of daytime naps, believing that they refreshed his mind and helped him to be more creative.

Back in the modern world, all the evidence points towards the fact that a lack of shut-eye can have a negative effect on cognitive function – a sleep-deprived worker may be slow and sluggish, which may in turn reduce their creativity and work performance.

RAND Corporation’s sleep expert, Wendy Troxel, summed it up nicely in her blog (‘Your Questions about Sleep, Answered’) when she said: “We think, behave, function and feel better when we get adequate sleep.”

Sleep deprivation could be having a significant impact on the bottom line, too. A report published in 2011 by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine concluded that insomnia costs the average US worker a whopping 11.3 days in lost productivity every year.

Sleep is now recognised as a critical piece in the health and wellbeing jigsaw. According to the NHS website, regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also it shortens your life expectancy.

Another health study, this time carried out by the University of California San Francisco last year, found that sleep deprivation may make you four times more likely to catch the common cold, too.

Hmmm, so if sleep has a positive impact on health, wellbeing and productivity, maybe it’s time for employers to introduce the right to a 20-minute power-nap at work? After all, if it worked for Einstein…