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Sleeping on The Job

Last week an aeroplane had to make an emergency landing at a Seattle airport shortly after taking off. Having been in the air for 14 minutes, the pilot could hear banging and screaming from inside the cargo hold. Once landed, it was found that an aviation employee had fallen asleep inside the pressurised and temperature-controlled cargo hold. The airline has said that the matter is being investigated.

Sometimes sleeping on the job is acceptable, for example, care workers who provide overnight care for elderly or ill patients are provided with a bed and can sleep while they’re not needed. In that case the sleeping forms part of working hours and is paid.

Unauthorised sleeping on the job is not unheard of for us. We recently had a call from a client asking for help with an employee who worked late shifts and night shifts. Her performance was poor and on a couple of occasions she had found to be asleep when she should have been working. On those occasions she had been given guidance and enquiries had been made as to her health. Most recently she had been found asleep in the stationery cupboard. She had been seen on CCTV going into the cupboard and did not emerge until someone knocked on the door little over an hour later.

The first thing is to establish whether the issue is a matter of conduct (won’t do the job) or capability (can’t do the job). Without investigating it is difficult to tell whether an employee is choosing not to work and sleep instead, or whether a medical condition is present and an employee cannot prevent falling to sleep. For example narcolepsy or conditions which prevent someone getting enough sleep at the right time such as; stress, depression or circadian rhythm disorders. In the case of the above employee we began investigating the matter by speaking with her. She had no underlying medical condition and could not give any satisfactory explanation as to why she needed to sleep during her shift. The employee had very short service. For the matter of sleeping on the job along with a number of other issues, the employee was dismissed after a disciplinary process was followed.

If sleeping is a matter of conduct disciplinary action may be the right route to take following a full investigation. The sanction awarded will depend on the facts of the case. For example, the employee who fell asleep in the stationary cupboard was employed as a cleaner. She did not get her work done on that shift but the risk to the business on that occasion was low. Had the role and responsibilities been different, for example, an on-duty security guard, the risk to the business with him being asleep is much greater. Depending where he works, company property may be lost etc. The risk to the business is just one factor to consider when deciding on an appropriate outcome.

If found to be a capability issue an employer should look at ways to help the employee in order for him to be able to fulfil his role. This may include extra training or guidance, or making some adjustments to the current role. If, having tried to help the employee, it is found that there is no way the employee can continue in his role, dismissal for reason of capability may be fair in the circumstances.

Sleep-deprived workers are at greater risk for chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression, so it may be helpful to discuss the possibility of the employee taking short catnaps – often known as powernaps - at work, perhaps during the employee’s meal break.

There are four steps to successful power napping.

  • Find a relatively quiet space or somewhere that feels private so you can relax. You might also try wearing sunglasses and stretching out in your car or driving to a local park on your lunch break.
  • Power naps should be relatively early so it doesn’t interfere with your ability to fall asleep at bedtime. Many of us start to make us feel somewhere between 1 and 4 pm.—so aim to fit in a nap during these hours.
  • Doze off faster by bringing something you associate with sleep to work (think: fuzzy socks or a relaxing soundtrack on your iPod). This will help you get into the sleep mindset more quickly.
  • Set an alarm. Keep naps to 10 to 20 minutes. Any longer and they have the downside of greater sleep inertia, or that sleep hangover feeling you get when you first wake up from a deep sleep. Set an alarm to go off after about 15 minutes.

Each case turns on its own facts, so do make sure that before taking any action you investigate.

If you need help dealing with dozing employees, do get in touch.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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