Companies have had employee wellness programs for years, designed not only to keep health care costs down, but to boost productivity and retention. Gym memberships, yoga classes, and even programs that track grocery purchases are but a few examples of employer efforts to improve workplace health.

But one thing that’s often overlooked, at least until recently, is sleep.

Although the ability to perform without it has become a badge of honor among some, the fact is that most of us need at least 7-8 hours per night for optimal cognitive functioning. Researchers have found, in fact, that being half asleep on the job not only makes us more frustrated and forgetful, but impacts focus, decision making, and therefore productivity. Tired workers are also less creative, take longer to complete tasks, and make more mistakes.

Not getting enough sleep, which experts say now applies to about one in three of us (thanks, in part, to our mobile devices), also exacts a steep physical toll and is now considered a public health problem by the Centers for Disease Control. In addition to day-to-day fatigue, sleep deprivation also puts us at greater risk for Alzheimers, cancer, diabetes, obesity, infections, and heart disease, as well as anxiety and depression.

The good news is that awareness is rapidly increasing and, as the New York Times recently put it, sleep has become the new status symbol. As a result, not only are impacted individuals now connecting the dots between health/performance and shuteye, so are their employers.

In addition to providing nap rooms/pods, which have been around for awhile, some companies are kicking it up a notch and actually paying employees to sleep more (Casper and Aetna, for instance). These, though, rely on employee self tracking via fitness reward apps like IncentFit, which aren’t necessarily reliable.

Other measures that are proving perhaps more effective, especially when incorporated into overall wellness initiatives, are sleep education programs, which educate workers on the benefits of sleep and include information on disorders like apnea (which many are often unaware of). Some companies also provide full medical coverage for sleep disorder testing and treatment.

“Sleep Doctor” Michael Breus, whose focus includes workplace productivity, says companies can also help employees catch more z’s by reducing shift work and overtime, ensuring adequate staffing, and using flextime or remote work arrangements to allow people to sleep longer.

The results, many agree, are not only happier and healthier employees, but competitive advantages and ultimately a greater ROI.

photo credit: KIR1984 photos N05/36843447695