Boston Medical Center is using an app to help employees sleep — and work — better

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A  portly academic with a light Scottish accent and an insomniac dog named Pavlov are playing therapist to sleep-deprived employees at Boston Medical Center.

The “Prof” and Pavlov are animated characters in a digital sleep training program called Sleepio, which claims to teach its users how to sleep better. In December, it became the latest addition to the benefits package for staff at the BMC and was announced Wednesday.

The idea is that well-rested employees are more productive and better performing, according to Big Health, the London-based maker of the Sleepio app.

According to Big Health, hospital employees who use the app sleep 4.5 hours longer per week.

After surveying a new user’s sleep and health habits, the app provides a “sleep score” that indicates how well – or poorly – they are sleeping. The app then takes the user through tutorials, suggesting small lifestyle changes that make for a deeper slumber.

The app even takes into account odd work hours like night shifts or early starts, and changes the instructions accordingly.

“Though it’s highly personalized and clinically evidence based, it’s designed to feel more like entertainment than medicine,” said Peter Hames, the co-founder of Big Health. “Unlike a human therapist, the Prof can be with you whenever you need him.”

BMC launched the sleep program in December of last year and more than 1,000 of its 5,800 employees, including medical staff such as residents in training and nurses, and non-medical hospital staff, have started using the app. (Staff physicians, because they get their benefits through the Boston University School of Medicine, are not part of the program so far.)

“It was a big hit,” said Lisa Kelly-Croswell, BMC vice president of human resources at BMC. By comparison, seminars on buying a house or managing finances typically get the attention of 5 percent of the staff.

But after trying Sleepio, grateful employees have showered the human resources department with emails, Kelly-Croswell reports.

Besides BMC, the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit is among other organizations offering the service to customers. Hames said he is seeing interest from a variety of sectors, from technology to travel.

Because it is a new program, BMC does not yet have data about its effectiveness but plan to measure it going forward. BMC has a one-year contract with Big Health, with plans to renew it for another year.

A few years ago, Hames found himself in an insomniac rut. Looking to avoid drug-based solutions, he turned to a cognitive behavioral therapy, a kind of psychotherapy. Hames managed to restore his sleep by taking instructions from a self-help book published by Colin Espie, a sleep researcher and professor at the University of Oxford in the UK.

The success he found in his own life spurred him to change what he calls “the traditional Anglo-Saxon work ethic.”

“People brag about pulling all-nighters (but research on sleep deprivation) suggests you’re harming your productivity because of that,” he said. Hames got in touch with Espie and the two started the company together.

Sleepio launched in 2014, offering a paid service to corporations with the pitch that it could improve the sleep habits, and by extension, the productivity of their employees. Specifically, it claims to save the company $400 per employee per year. That same year, the company announced that it raised $3.3 million in funding; its angel investors included Esther Dyson, an influential tracker of Silicon Valley trends.

“The beautiful thing is the Prof is always there for you,” Hames said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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