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Sleep, Work and occupational

Sleep-enhancing headbands could make people more productive at work

But using wearable technology to boost employees' performance raises important ethical questions.

12 April 2023

By Emma Young

How can employers help their staff to perform better at work? One strategy could be to give them a headband that boosts sleep quality, write the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Ideally, employees get plentiful sleep of very high quality,” write Christopher M Barnes at the University of Washington and colleagues. In the real world, of course this does not always happen. Too little sleep can leave people struggling to focus on tasks and regulate themselves effectively. Poor quality sleep, with disruptions to restorative non-REM slow wave sleep, causes difficulties, too. Research shows that poor sleep quality undermines self-control, leaving employees “less able to fully invest themselves in work,” as the team puts it.

So the team decided to investigate whether a technology that can improve sleep quality might drive improvements in four different workplace outcomes that have been found to be affected by sleep quality: work engagement (feeling immersed in tasks while at work), task performance, organisational citizenship behaviour (taking time to help a co-worker, for example) and counterproductive workplace behaviour (such as saying something hurtful to a colleague).

Their study was on 81 full-time employees working at a university and a data analytics company, who were given commercially available ‘closed loop acoustic stimulation’ headbands to take home with them. These devices monitor the wearer’s brain activity and deliver precisely timed ‘pink noise’ clicks, which can increase the stability and duration of slow wave sleep and even promote the shift to slow wave activity. Various studies over the past decade have shown that this type of acoustic stimulation can improve sleep quality, the team notes.

The participants wore their headband for twenty work-nights in total. On ten of those nights, it was switched on. On the other ten, it was off. (The team switched each participant’s headset either on or off half way through the study period; participants didn’t know which condition they were in.) Every morning, before work, the participants reported on how well they felt had slept, and how long they had slept for. After work, they answered questions about those four workplace outcomes.

The team found that when the headbands were turned on, this was linked to 8.31% better sleep quality, a 7.78% increase in workplace engagement, a 3.3% increase in task performance and a 16.34% boost to organisational citizenship behaviour. The analysis did not show any reduction in counterproductive behaviour. But that might be because this type of behaviour was generally at a low level anyway, they write. Overall: “Our work reveals a relatively low cost means to improve sleep even within the time-limited bounds of heavy work demands,” they conclude.

However, there are a few important points to note. As the researchers themselves stress, the headband was linked to those improvements for younger, but not older workers. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 40, with a mean age of 31.5. The team found that the stimulation was especially effective at improving sleep quality among the ‘younger’ participants, aged at least 7 years below the mean. But for the ‘older’ participants, aged about 38 and up, it was “relatively ineffective”. This fits with earlier findings from different groups that this type of acoustic stimulation improves sleep quality only among relatively young adults.

So — handing out this type of headband might improve sleep quality and improve some workplace outcomes for younger employees. And perhaps future work might find that it’s particularly effective for people with very heavy job demands, or those working extended shifts, with less opportunity for sleep, the team suggests.

However, as the results show, the technology doesn’t seem to do much for older people, and some participants (who were not included in the final analysis) found the headset so uncomfortable to sleep in they didn’t complete the study.

Clearly, there are also some important ethical considerations, which the team acknowledge. “We believe that closed loop stimulation is a benign, even a beneficial intervention,” they write. But if an employer is sleep-depriving its employees and sees this technology as an alternative to reducing work demands, clearly it would not be benign. Also, this is just one wearable device that may improve workplace performance — but there are others out there, and more will become available in the future, the team notes. “We encourage future applied psychology researchers to give thorough consideration to bioethics issues which may be raised by emerging technologies,” they write.