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Wellness programs offer a good night's sleep

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Employers are waking up to the benefits of helping employees get enough sleep.

Despite the prevalence of workplace wellness programs, employers have historically preferred to promote employee fitness and weight management over getting enough ZZZs.

But as the benefits of a well-rested workforce become better known, that's set to change.

“A lot of employers are asking questions about (sleep) and exploring exactly what they can do” for their employees, said Stephanie Pronk, Minneapolis-based senior vice president at benefit consultant Aon Hewitt.

Employers recognize that sleep issues extend beyond those that come with shift work and “definitely can have an impact on the business environment,” Ms. Pronk said.

For one, a sleep-deprived workforce leads to reduced productivity. A widely cited 2011 Harvard Medical School study published in the journal “Sleep” found that the average worker with insomnia results in 11.3 lost days of productivity each year, with all cases costing the U.S. workforce $63.2 billion a year.

Insomnia is one of some 80 sleep disorders, according to Cleveland Clinic. Up to 70 million U.S. residents have problems sleeping, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 60% of those have a chronic disorder, according to the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. Insomnia, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome are common sleep disorders, the CDC says.

Extensive research has shown that insufficient sleep - defined by the CDC as less than seven to eight hours a day for adults — impairs decision-making, problem-solving and creativity, leading to decreased engagement and workplace accidents. It has also been linked to chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to the CDC, and can lead to higher health costs for employers.

There is limited data on the number of employers offering sleep programs, though they are most often offered by larger employers. An April survey by Mercer L.L.C. of more than 2,500 employers said 32% of employers with more than 500 workers offer sleep disorder diagnosis and treatment programs. For all employers surveyed, the number fell to 24%.

Sleep can be addressed in a variety of ways in the workplace, but “where we're seeing the most attention and traction right now is around third-party vendors who specialize in sleep management,” said Sandra Kuhn, principal of health and benefits with Mercer.

For example, Atlanta-based sleep health company FusionHealth Group Inc. partners with Willis North America Inc. to help employers reduce risks associated with sleep apnea.

Following an assessment, treatment and monitoring, the company sees a roughly 95% adherence rate to therapy for those with sleep apnea, said Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, FusionHealth's chief medical officer. Clients using the program have increased productivity as much as 50% and reduced manufacturing defect rates 48%, he said.

When FusionHealth launched in 2011, most of the companies it worked with were in high-risk industries such as transportation, where regulations address sleep apnea. But now its program is gaining traction elsewhere, as sleep disorders “can hit everybody from computer scientists to oil workers,” Dr. Durmer said.

Truck stop operator Pilot Travel Centers L.L.C., which does business as Pilot Flying J, began offering FusionHealth's sleep program to its retail center and corporate employees last year and, more recently, its truck drivers. Available to its 8,000 medical plan members, 63 workers currently use the program, said Stephen Huskey, Pilot's Knoxville, Tennessee-based employee health specialist.

“Health and wellness branches out from how well you're sleeping, so it's an opportunity to kind of approach wellness from the core,” Mr. Huskey said.

In Santa Cruz, California, Sina Nader, CEO of sleep health provider Swan Solutions L.L.C., also said employer interest is growing.

Swan, which leads general sleep 101 and jet lag talks at large companies such as Google Inc., also screens workers for sleep disorders and poor sleep habits using its Web-based software. Customized plans to improve sleep are devised and Swan even has a SleepDesk to answer sleep-related questions. Mr. Nader declined to say how many employers Swan works with.

Employers can measure the value of sleep programs by observing reductions in medical costs, workplace accidents, manufacturing defects and absenteeism rates, experts say, though benefits such as increased creativity are intangible.

Despite the difficulty in assigning a dollar value, Don Powell, Farmington Hills, Michigan-based CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, predicted that in a few years, sleep programs will “be one of the most popular worksite wellness programs.”