UK: Are We Sleeplessly Walking Into Poor Mental Health?

Last Updated: 29 July 2019
Article by Lana Neil and Clare Prower

Sleep deprivation and its impact on employee performance

What does an employee's good night's sleep have to do with their employer? In some ways the answer is perfectly obvious – a tired employee will not be performing optimally and if the situation persists may in turn affect team and even company performance. But whilst the effects of sleep deprivation are fairly clear, the factors that contribute to it may not be quite so well known.

There is a growing awareness of how fundamental adequate sleep is to our well-being. But many people struggle to sleep really well. Why is this? We have explored the science behind sleep and how it can affect us with Dr Guy Meadows from the Sleep School, who has studied the effects of sleep deprivation and the factors that can contribute to poor sleep. Dr Meadows has investigated and dispelled the widely held but incorrect belief that a person who does not get enough sleep during the working week can simply catch up at the weekend.

Why our beloved lie-in may be letting us down

'Sleep debt' is a scientifically recognised state. It is a term used to describe cumulative sleep loss resulting from restricted periods of sleep. Scientific research shows that a long lie-in on the weekend will not 'repay' a sleep debt. Instead, our bodies experience 'social jetlag', which can have an adverse impact on mental health and functionality. A long lie-in shifts our bodies' biological processes including hormone production and growth and repair – putting our sleep-wake timing out of sync. This results in them being active and inactive at the wrong times during the day, leading to symptoms akin to jet lag experienced after a long-haul flight. Research suggests we should instead be repaying any sleep debt in smaller, incremental chunks – increasing the amount of sleep we have each night by as little as 15 minutes, for example.

If an employee is the first one at his/her desk and the last to leave...

...their performance at work may be suffering. Studies show that, on average, being awake for more than 16 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05% owing to decreased concentration. After 19 hours, that figure doubles to 0.1%. To put this into perspective, the legal driving limit in the UK is 0.08%.

Where employers can make a difference

Sometimes long working hours are necessary to complete urgent work, complete a project or deal with an unexpected surge in demand. In some workplaces however long hours become habitual and presenteeism takes hold. Overwork or excessive hours in the office with insufficient time in the day to undertake activities that promote relaxation and winding down can, over time, contribute significantly to sleep disruption.

Employers who want to know that their employees are working optimally have a vested interested in avoiding the effects of poor sleep. But there is also a legal framework to consider. The Health and Safety at Work Act requires employers to maintain a safe working environment and ensure that operations within it are conducted safely. In parallel, the Working Time Regulations set out a framework of requirements for daily and weekly rest periods, as well as a 48-hour limit on the amount of time spent working each week.

Employees can be asked to opt out of the 48 hour weekly working limit and in some organisations are routinely asked to do so. But is that the best approach? A long-hours culture could be making a significant contribution to sleep debt and poor quality sleep in some individuals. Ultimately it could be the balance sheet that suffers. In discharging legal obligations could employers be doing more to safeguard their staff, to make sure they are well-rested rather than sleep-deprived – not only to provide a safe working environment but, as the research shows, to address 'sleep debt' and all its consequences?

Prioritise mental health

Employers' health and safety obligations extend to mental as well as physical health. It may come as no surprise that chronic sleep deprivation is recognised as a core symptom of mental health difficulties. Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter in our brain regulating our mood (often replenished during sleep) is the same chemical involved in the regulation of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour body clock) and in the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. This means that disrupted sleep can lead to a low mood and vice versa.

The European and UK legal framework should, in theory at least, promote good employee health and sensible management of working time and thus benefit both employer and employees. A recent decision of the European Court of Justice1 has gone further by suggesting that employers should be operating a system of recording actual daily working time for workers in order to ensure that they are receiving the rest breaks and daily and weekly rest periods that the Working Time Directive requires.

There is considerable uncertainty about the application of this decision to the UK's rules on working time (which will in part depend on our future relationship with the EU), but it raises interesting practical questions about how employers can monitor working hours effectively without intruding upon their employees' privacy. What continues to be the case is that employers should be wary of ignoring signs that their employees are working too hard or too long – there is clear evidence of a link between a long hours culture, disrupted sleep and poor mental health with all that that entails for employer who want the best from their employees.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions