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Sleep Deprivation and Its Effects on Worker Welfare

Sleep deprivation is a workplace health concern that is often ignored. It can decrease productivity at the workplace as well as being a frequent root cause for many safety incidents, accidents, and damages to property which result in a high financial impact every year. Employers are often unaware of the impact sleep deprivation can have on their operations until a serious incident occurs.

It is no secret that sleep deprivation causes performances to decline as persons become less vigilant and show slower response times to various workplace decisions. This can present serious safety consequences, particularly where using heavy equipment or machinery may be involved. Flexible thinking, decision making based on new information, the ability to think and innovate are negatively impacted as a result.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, for example, found that workers performing critical tasks which are heavily reliant on visual perception are at risk of not being able to perform their work adequately if they become sleep-deprived. These can include jobs that have the potential of putting others at risk such as air traffic controllers, crane operators, heavy vehicle drivers and many others.

In recent years, numerous high-profile accidents reported in national media were said to be related to the same issue. In 2010, as an extreme example, a sleep-deprived pilot caused a Boeing 737 crash in southern India, killing 158 people. The disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and numerous major transport accidents, have to some extent, all been linked to sleep deprivation.

Brain imaging studies conducted in laboratory settings have shown that sleep deprivation is associated with activating regions of the brain related to risky decision making, while areas that control rationale and logical thinking show lower levels of activation. This can very much explain why, as a result of tiredness, irritation, and impatience, we are likely to take actions that ignore the negative implications of our behaviours.

The following are only some of the statistics worldwide highlighting the effect of sleep deprivation on worker safety (the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies):

  • The estimated cost of sleep-related workplace accidents in the United States alone is at least 5 Billion Dollars a year.
  • 20% of all serious vehicle injuries are associated with driver sleepiness
  • Highly fatigued workers are 70% more likely to be involved in accidents

Working as a health and safety practitioner for a number of years, I can very much relate to such statistics and have witnessed numerous cases where normally excellent employees have been involved in serious accidents where fatigue or sleep deprivation had been a root cause.

Organizations generally struggle to minimize the effects of sleep deprivation at their workplace, as much of the problem is involved with the workers personal choices outside of their working hours. Personal factors such as lifestyle, family worries or financial concerns of course, may play a big role in a person’s inability to sleep at night. On the other hand, job-related issues such as shift work and turnaround periods resulting in time pressures and irregular working hours in some industries have shown to also add to the problem. Bullying and workplace harassment in some cases have also shown to have an impact.

Self-awareness, and not just accepting sleep deprivation as a normal occasional behavior at the workplace are important first steps for organizations to begin controlling the problem. The below are a number of practical steps many companies around the world use to minimize the impact of sleep deprivation on their employees:

  1. Set rules on working times

This can be done by discouraging the excessive use of company-provided electronic devices outside of working hours. The issue here is clarity, and employers would be doing more for their people by setting limits on employees expected availability after working hours, introducing policies that limit after-hours and out-of-office communications.

It is interesting to mention that a number of multinational organizations such as Google, Uber, Zappo, PWC, Ben & Jerry’s and the Huffington Post provide “Nap Rooms” for employees to take short nap breaks during the working hours. Applying such concessions of course very much depends on the maturity of the organization and the type of industry involved.

2.   Manage shift work

Employers need to be aware of the times when people are most likely to be affected by fatigue. Aim to manage shift work and overtime so that employees have regular opportunities for adequate recovery.

3. Health campaigns

Given the work-related risks created as a result of sleep deprivation, the subject must be highlighted throughout any organization at some point during the year. At a number of organizations I have worked with, one month of the year was always designated to highlighting the impact of sleep deprivation throughout the company.

The campaigns normally advised employees of healthy sleeping habits outside of work, effects of the lack of sleep on mental health, the importance of exercise and sleep deprivation links to cardiovascular disease, lower immune system, type two diabetes, obesity and cancer.

Methods such as posters, short training sessions, toolbox talks, safety moments before meetings and companywide email communications were only some of the methods used in organizations I have worked with.

Some firms have introduced “sleep training” as part of such campaigns. Accountancy firm PWC, for example, provided a program involving a specialist sleep expert to all of their UK employees in response to the health risks the topic presents.

4.    Use of technology:

A number of organizations have begun to use data from wireless sensors to prevent an accident by monitoring employee fatigue levels. Such devices can be used to monitor a drop in heart rate which generally indicates tiredness and a potential lack of concentration. This provides an indication to a control center where a supervisor can potentially stop the work and recommend a break.

Organizations such as DHL, Bank of America, Hitachi, BP America and others have introduced devices such as Fitbit and Nike+ to record information related to health, fitness, sleep quality and fatigue levels. These devices are also being used by employers to integrate wearable devices into employee wellness programs.

5.   Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

For some employees, sleep deprivation can turn from an occasional problem to a consistent threat to health. Some employers as part of their employee wellness programs send employees troubled by poor sleeping to private sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. This can be a very effective treatment for chronic insomnia and is much preferred to only relying on sleeping tablets.

As health and safety professionals, it is disappointing to think that all our efforts to keep employees safe can be circumvented by a lack of sleep; It is therefore essential that the impact of fatigue and sleep deprivation is fully communicated and understood.

In the event that workers ignore these suggestions and continue to deprive themselves of sleep to the extent that they become a danger for their safety and the safety of others, the company may have no choice but to intervene with the required disciplinary measures.

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May 22, 2018

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