As an interdisciplinary team, HealthyWorkplaces reaches out to collaborators to better understand how the variety of disciplines can come together to improve the workplace. This month, biomedical engineer Elizabeth Nelson of University of Twente provided her input about lack of sleep causing burnout in an ever increasing number of employees. Further, architect Antony Kim of University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Built Environment shared his knowledge about circadian rhythms and their regulation with proper lighting. We explore how the lighting architecture and biology of humans can factor into implementing an improved workspace, and offer a solutions approach for organizations.


Workers are not getting enough sleep.

It is no secret; the world is sleep deprived. With longer work days becoming the norm, there seems to be no time for the recommended 7-9 hours of shut-eye per night (Sifferlin, 2015). It is no wonder that employees are exhausted. In fact, burnout now has a clinical diagnosis in the Netherlands, says PhD candidate Elizabeth Nelson of University of Twente. The Japanese term “Karōshi“, meaning death from heart attack, stroke, or suicide triggered from overwork has become a defined diagnosis for death. So what are the effects of a modern work culture that deprives so many of the basic need of sleep?

Numerous studies provide evidence that sleep is an essential time for the mind and body to recover. Although sacrificing an hour of sleep to maximize time for work seems logical, the truth is that sleep deprivation “lowers not just our attention span, focus, and memory, it also affects our emotional intelligence, self-esteem, and empathy toward others” writes Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive. Further, “lack of sleep depletes our self-control. Our behavior and our character are not set in stone— they can be affected by how recharged and centered we are ” (Huffington, 2014).

Huffington cites the research of Dr. Killgore of Harvard University Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine. The study found that, “relative to baseline, sleep deprivation was associated with lower scores on decreased global emotional intelligence, intrapersonal functioning, interpersonal functioning, reduced stress management skills, and reduced behavioral coping” (Killgore, 2010). In addition, The Howard Hughes Medical Institute study showed that “depriving mice of sleep for just five hours dramatically reduced the connectivity between neurons in the hippocampus” – an integral structure for learning and memory formation (Havekes, 2016). Keeping in mind the many proven negative consequences for lack of sleep, getting enough sleep may be the key to better work.


How can work culture encourage sleep?

From the overwhelming amount of research proving the power of sleep to create healthy employees, how can companies help with employee wellness? HealthyWorkplaces hopes to promote a space in which employees can be well-rested and respected for doing so.

Simply telling people to take naps at work isn’t enough; companies need to provide employees with a real solution. Research suggests that a “first step is having a sanctioned space where it is accepted and encouraged to nap” (Greenfield, 2015). Some companies have tuned in to this issue. For example, Google’s Kirkland office “features nap caves for employees who need to rest and recharge” (Bush, 2016). Despite the introduction of nap caves, the biggest challenge may be to embed this into work culture. While Google’s solution may not be perfect, it is a big step to acknowledge and address the sleep issue, emphasizing that it is accepted and encouraged to take advantage of the rest and relaxation services.

An alternative solution to building a space for recharging is to identify outside spaces to recharge and building that into the organizational culture. The company “Recharj” is purely dedicated to encouraging naps and designed a nap sanctuary in which “suited-up professionals can pay $15 to take a 20-minute nap — [for] a brief midday respite in the middle of bustling Washington” (Stein, 2016). Customers enter individual nap pods with “lavender scented eye masks and doze as a soft soundtrack timed to the frequency of their sleep cycle plays. After 20 minutes, a faint beep — far more pleasant-sounding than an alarm clock — wakes everyone.”  Giving employees access to these services can help them to balance their work and rest.


The Circadian Cycle – the biological process of sleep.

Circadian rhythms are the “physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment,” (National Institute of General Medical Sciences, 2012). Regular sleep helps the individual maintain a healthy circadian rhythm — yet it is important to note one other particularly important stimulus – light – which has quite an impact on regulating the circadian cycle.

Light triggers biological responses in the body: “The brain responds to the input of sunlight to reset itself each day [and] light input is transmitted to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain – which influences our level of melatonin production, the hormone which influences our energy level” (Walton, 2016). Not only does light influence melatonin levels, but it also triggers other biological processes such as “hunger, mental alertness, mood, stress, heart function, and immunity” (Walton, 2012).  For instance, our immune system is more activated at night than during the day, which means a healthy immune system can be achieved in part by restful sleep.


Tapping into the biology of sleep through light.

Considering how influential light is for a properly functioning circadian rhythm, working under the constant glare of fluorescent lights undoubtedly disrupts the body from identifying the rising and setting of the sun. For this reason, PhD candidate Antony Kim of UC Berkeley created a lighting lounge in Sweden to help patients with seasonal affective disorder, and results are promising. Kim believes that a lighting lounge like the one in Sweden could be useful in the workplace if it were implemented within a building space that had restricted access to the outside and had little daylight access.

PhD candidate Elizabeth Nelson of University of Twente is conducting similar research. She suggests workplaces should have brighter blue light in the afternoon, and dimmer lights in the evening. A simple solution for healthier lighting could be to implement lamps that make these changes intensity and color throughout the day to encourage healthier circadian cycles.  

While the research and technology in these areas are relatively new, what organizations can take away from this knowledge is that lighting is an important tool for promoting healthy workers in a workplace.  Making structural changes to optimize the light exposure in workplaces will have a positive impact on health and support a good sleep schedule.  Together, good light exposure and adequate sleep will contribute to a healthy, productive, and engaged worker.


Moving forward: direction of future research and practice

HealthyWorkplaces will continue learning about how sleep and circadian cycle can be beneficial in the workplace in order to build organizational support for physical and psychological states of employees. In this article, we recognize that the circadian cycle, as regulated by light exposure and sleep, has a significant influence in the body’s immunity, sleep regulation, and appetite. In addition, sleep alone is proven to assist cognitive processing, stress management, memory, and more. HealthyWorkplaces strives to understand the limitations that employees face to keep a strong body and mind. If proper lighting and a more open sleep culture make all the difference, these workspace adjustments may lead to a much more effective work life.  

What can organizations do to promote adequate sleep and a healthy circadian rhythm in the workplace?  HealthyWorkplaces advocates an integrated approach with a focus on satisfying the individual’s needs.  This means that organizational decisions about how to design the environment (physical environment or cultural environment) should be made with the worker in mind.  Organizations can, for example, implement a different shift schedule that will contribute to more flexibility and ultimately more opportunities for better sleep at night or rest during the day.  They can also make changes to the physical environment that promote health.  For example, optimal lighting, devices to direct natural light into windowless spaces, and having an outdoor garden or patio can support the natural circadian rhythm.  There are many ways in which the research in these areas can be applied, and HealthyWorkplaces is working towards making these applications accessible and comprehensive.  We are building an inventory of these solutions as part of our research agenda.


Primary Author: Pauline Simes
Research Assistant

Isabelle Thibau