What Happens If Your Employees Have Sleep Apnea?

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5 September 2023

What Happens If Your Employees Have Sleep Apnea?

Q: Can the quality of your employees’ sleep affect your company’s bottom line?

A: Yes! Some studies estimate a cost of up to $6,091 each year for an employee with a currently untreated sleep problem.

Is Great Sleep Really That Important?

Productivity—and profits—depend on healthy employees. This includes getting adequate sleep, which is as important as proper diet, regular exercise, and stress reduction. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night for adults 26 to 64 years old.

Sleep is essential for all parts of the body:

  • Brain cells grow and repair themselves. The brain also clears out toxins to prepare for the next day.
  • Memories are sorted and stored, and new pathways in the brain are established.
  • The immune system is strengthened and better able to fight infections or illness.
  • Production of the hormones that cause weight gain goes down. Less insulin is required for food digestion, so there is a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke is reduced.
  • Muscles use stored energy to regenerate and grow.
  • Mood is improved and risk for depression decreases.

But Everyone Sleeps, Right?

Lack of sufficient quantity and quality sleep has reached an epidemic level. While everyone requires sleep in order to function at top form, a 2014 study reported that 45% of Americans admitted they have poor or insufficient sleep at least once a week. In fact, sleep disorders affect nearly 40 million people each year. A sleep disorder is a condition that interrupts the normal sleep pattern. A common example is insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Sleep Apnea is Dangerous

One of the most serious disorders is sleep apnea. It happens when the airway becomes blocked during sleep, causing breathing pause or stop. A few facts about sleep apnea:

  • Pauses can last from a few seconds to over a minute.
  • Breathing can stop from 5 to 100 times an hour.
  • Snoring is the most common symptom.
  • Choking, snorting, and gasping can cause waking up.
  • Men over age 40 and obese people more frequently have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that disrupts normal sleep cycles and decreases oxygen to the brain and body. (Learn more in “7 Fascinating Facts About Sleep Apnea and Workplace Safety“.) Harvard Medical School warns that people with sleep apnea can develop heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. They are more susceptible to heart attacks and strokes. People with severe sleep apnea, especially men between 40 and 70 years old, have a 46% higher risk of death than those without it.

Sleep Apnea is Often Undiagnosed

How many people have sleep apnea? The Sleep Health Index™ was conducted in 2014 by the National Sleep Foundation to collect data about America’s sleep habits. It reports that almost 12% of Americans have been told by their providers that they have sleep apnea. However, the gap for those who remain undiagnosed—and untreated–is huge: about 80% of men and 90% of women with moderate-to-severe sleep apnea are not aware they have the disorder. This translates into a $3.4 billion burden on healthcare costs every year.

Sleep Apnea Increases Work Risks

For employers, sleep apnea is a valid concern. Given the statistics, most companies have workers with undiagnosed sleep apnea. Employees who aren’t rested come to work fatigued. They are 2.5 times more likely to have a work-related accident than their rested co-workers. This could be a particular issue for those in safety-sensitive positions and workers who staff night shift positions. (Learn more in “Fatigue Management in Night Shift Workers and Employer Risks“.) Job performance in general suffers, too. Employees with untreated sleep apnea are:

  • 14 times more likely to have had work-related issues, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, falling asleep on the job, or missing at least a day of work.
  • 4 times more likely to require a job modification within a five-year time frame, resulting in a missed promotion or a pay cut.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis of sleep apnea is confirmed with a sleep study, usually done at a sleep lab or sleep center. During sleep testing, sensors are attached to the scalp, face, chest, limbs, and a finger. Medical professionals monitor the sensors during the night for brain activity, eye movements, vital signs, ability to breathe, and oxygen level. Things such as wake time after sleep onset are also measured. The results of the sleep study (including a sleep histogram) are evaluated along with medical history and a physical examination.

Treatment is usually simple. (Learn more in “5 Treatments for Employees with Sleep Apnea”.) For people who are overweight or obese, the first step is weight loss. Patients can also use a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask at night. Dr. David Rapoport of New York University School of Medicine explains, “It’s the most successful treatment that applies pressure to help keep the airways open while sleeping, which allows for normal breathing.” Other treatment options include a special mouth guard that pulls the mouth forward and, occasionally, surgery.

Treatment Benefits to Employers

For employers, treatment means healthier, more rested workers who are alert and productive. It can also mean fewer chronic medical issues in the future, saving on costs related to days lost, absenteeism, and serious illness. (Learn more in “Encouraging Employees to Achieve Healthy Eating and Fitness Goals in the Workplace“.) Studies have shown that after the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea, there is a savings of $9,200 to $13,400 per life year.

How Employers Can Help Employees

What can companies do to help employees? While most medical insurance covers a sleep study and sleep apnea treatment, check to be sure that it is in place. Consider a sleep apnea awareness campaign, using posters and information displayed in prominent places. This can be included as part of your workplace wellness program. (Learn more in “7 Steps for Implementing a Workplace Wellness Program”.) Include an article in the newsletter or send an email to all employees. Both the American Sleep Association and the National Sleep Foundation sponsor annual efforts to learn about sleep health and sleep apnea. Educate supervisors and managers on performance-related signs of sleep deprivation, so they can encourage workers to seek diagnosis and treatment. Health fairs can also be a good vehicle for introducing information to employees about sleep apnea. (Learn more in “8 Tips for a Successful Company Health Fair“.)

Paying attention to how well people sleep can bring positive results at many levels. Both employers and employees can “rest assured” knowing that an important health issue has been addressed.