Are you an employer who’s always tussling with the same worker over why he’s arriving late yet again, or why he mentally switches off either first thing in the morning or later in the day?
Does your employee show up disheveled to work, as though he just leaped out of bed and threw on the first clothes he came to? Does it appear that your employee didn’t wash and shave before turning up?
If you recognize these scenarios, the problem may lie with a sleep disorder, something every human resources department should be aware of and take seriously
By making small changes in employees’ contracts and working patterns, companies can gain so much more from sleep-disordered employees. They also can avoid legal confrontations arising from unfair dismissal claims; sleep disorders can be considered a disability, so employers have a responsibility to investigate and respond appropriately. Recognizing you have an employee with a sleep disorder is the first stage in putting things right.
Recognize Sleep-Disordered Employees
There is a big difference between the lazy employee who won’t get out of bed because he stays up late or drinks too much, and the person who–no matter how hard he says he tries–just can’t seem to work the same hours as “normal people.”
As the employer, you have reprimanded your “lazy” employee many times, but it’s achieved nothing. You’re confused by the fact he’s always apologetic and fearful of losing his job, yet he still arrives late, naps on the job or delivers sloppy output. In addition, he still looks like he doesn’t care about his personal hygiene and dress.
If your employee wants to keep his job yet still doesn’t deliver the goods, you should seriously consider whether the employee’s sleep patterns are at fault. The only way you can determine this is by asking him about his sleep and the exact nature of the issues he’s faced with.
The Impact Of Sleep Disorders
The person with sleep disorders can shiver, walk unsteadily, suffer blurred vision and slurred speech, and even vomit if he’s suddenly woken and forced out of bed during an irregular sleep cycle. The sudden jarring from rest can cause neurological symptoms.
Nausea and dizziness throughout the day are common, as are concentration lapses, blood sugar issues, and migraines. He’ll probably also suffer from poor temperature regulation and be unable to get warm.
It’s important not to assume he simply needs to go to bed earlier; when sleep disorders are at play, an employee could go to bed very early but lie awake until dawn, or fall asleep relatively early but wake frequently. Perhaps he also never gets to the rapid eye movement phase (REM), which is the deep sleep required for energy renewal. Even worse, perhaps he does reach REM, but only just before the alarm sounds.
Identifying Possible Sleep Disorders
As the employer, it’s not your job to identify disorders and make diagnoses. Your only responsibility is to understand that a sleep disorder may be at the root of the problem and to support the employee in seeking investigations. You’ll also need to discuss adjusting his working hours and find an empathic, temporary solution that works both for the company and the individual.
In the first instance, identifying that you do have an employee who isn’t just lazy, and who does deserve the company’s investment of flexibility and patience, largely comes down to: a) how the employee assesses and describes the situation and symptoms, and b) his response to the severity of the consequences.
In the latter case, if the person’s job is at stake and he’s upset about this, but still seems unable to change things, the chances are he’s unable to self-regulate his sleep-wake cycle.
What Is The Answer From An Employer’s Perspective?
You need to take this employee aside at a non-pressured time and discuss the issue in depth. Continued reprimand serves no purpose because it’s probably outside the employee’s control, in the same way, perhaps, as if he suffered from seizures. Your worker is probably as confused and frustrated as you are, and will be feeling alienated and worried.
A four-pronged approach is useful, comprising questioning, investigating, offering workplace solutions, and monitoring.
In the questioning phase, you’ll ask the employee about the cause of his ongoing issue, and what his symptoms are. It’s likely he’ll say he just can’t get out of bed no matter what time he sleeps, or that he can get out of bed but feels ill when he does.
In the investigating phase, you might suggest your employee has a sleep disorder that needs medical attention, perhaps a sleep clinic. You have no obligation to do this, but you can offer to help him in identifying clinics or specialists. The more help you give, the better the likely outcome for the company, as he will feel supported and encouraged, not afraid.
Draft a letter for him to take to his doctor or send to a sleep clinic so the issue is taken seriously. Not only does this add extra weight to the need for medical investigations, but it also reassures him you’re not accusing him of malingering. Further, this formalizes the process and makes clear that you take your responsibilities seriously.
As it may take up to a year for a sleep clinic referral and diagnosis, “workplace solutions” mean offering flexible hours, initially on a finite date trial spanning several months. This allows him a reasonable length of time to self-regulate his work and sleep, ascertaining what cycles work best.
Naturally, flexible hours only work for certain occupations, primarily work that’s office-based. If the work depends on set hours, or if he’s a manual worker or driver, or in a risk-bearing role, offer an alternative function. You cannot employ under-performers in roles involving risk.
Flexible timekeeping takes trust, but the reward for you is the possibility of good results. If the employee can work to the dictates of his “body clock” instead of his alarm clock, his productivity and output quality should improve.
The final stage, monitoring, is vital. The employee needs goals to drive himself forward, but also to prove to you that he’s capable of the tasks.
If he delivers his work to the agreed targets, he is fulfilling his contract. Now, you can see whether his delivered work is up to standard, with the sleep issue removed. “Success” now depends on him attaining his targets, with no hour-by-hour monitoring. The targets may be spaced every few days, every week, or at longer intervals. He can work from home when it suits, but should come into the office whenever he’s able.
Request regular reporting meetings, so that he still sees you and feels in touch. It is not useful to plan meetings far ahead; he may be unable to attend on the stated day or time due to his sleep issues, only heightening your frustrations.
Allow him to approach you when a target meeting falls due, and let him proactively offer dates and times. He will know at what time of day he’ll feel fit to attend.
Throughout the workplace solutions and monitoring phases, don’t forget you’re still awaiting the results of medical investigations; some medication might be available to help the employee, once he’s been diagnosed. Keep checking with the employee to see what’s happening medically, and allow appropriate timelines for completing the investigations.
What Will Other Employees Think?
To some degree, you’ll probably feel like a mother giving all her attention to the first-born child. It will be a frustrating but necessary period of hand-holding.
Explain to other employees that you are not giving special favours or terms to the struggling employee, but that there may be a medical issue which is being investigated. Ensuring he does not become alienated by colleagues is important, so make sure team meetings are scheduled to take place in the late afternoons when he can attend.
This all may feel as though you are giving this employee far too much leeway; the reality is, you’ll only stand to gain by showing flexibility. Firstly, you’re doing all the right things from the perspective of employment law; secondly, he may well surprise you with the work he produces when the difficulties are removed. Further side benefits are that other employees will see you as a responsible employer, and you’ll know you’ve done everything in your power to help this individual before taking steps towards dismissal if things cannot be resolved.