Fatigue compromises safety. It has been identified as a contributory factor to some of the worst disasters in recent times: the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in Russia, and the grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska.
In one study a research team observed hospital interns who had been scheduled to work for at least 24 consecutive hours. The researchers found that their odds of stabbing themselves with a needle or scalpel increased 61%, their risk of crashing a motor vehicle increased 168%, and their risk of a near-miss increased 460%.
Employers can be vicariously liable in law for mistakes and accidents employees make in the course of their duties. But the risks don’t stop there.
- Fatigued employees communicate poorly, pause for long intervals, mumble inaudibly, mispronounce or slur words, repeat themselves or lose their place in a sentence.
- Performance declines. Employees have trouble maintaining focus, developing and updating strategies, keeping track of events, maintaining interest in outcomes and attending non-essential activities.
- The cognitive detriments of sleep deprivation increase with a worker’s time on a given task, resulting in an increased number of errors. Errors especially are likely in subject-paced tasks in which cognitive slowing occurs, and with tasks that are time-sensitive.
- Flexible thinking, updating strategies based on new information, the ability to think divergently and innovation are all negatively impacted by sleep deprivation. A manager may be unable to fill a leadership role on request when he or she is sleep deprived.
- Inappropriate mood-related behaviour may occur, or individuals may become very quiet and socially withdrawn.
- Brain imaging studies show that sleep deprivation is associated with increased activation of brain regions related to risky decision making, while areas that control rational and logical thinking show lower levels of activation. Tiredness increases one’s expectation of gains while diminishing the implications of losses.
Health and safety at work legislation requires employers to take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure the general safety of their staff. The Working Time Regulations 1998 go a step further and gives workers the right to ‘proper breaks and time off’.
In the UK employees have the right to limit work to 48 hours a week and cannot be compelled to work more unless they genuinely opt to do so. Night workers have the right to medical check-ups and there is a right to at least one day off a week, and ideally two in a row, in order to avoid building up a sleep deficit.
Quite far apart from the law, taking a proactive approach to ensure that staffs are well-rested is a smart business strategy. People think they’re saving time and being more productive by not sleeping, but in fact they are cutting their productivity drastically.
Be age aware! Older employees are especially vulnerable to sleep disorders. Past the age of 40, sleep is much more fragmented. Workers in this age group are more easily awakened by disturbances, such as noise and from their own increasing aches and pains, as do sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome, insomnia, and sleep apnoea.
Loss of sleep increases levels of appetite and stress hormones; it also reduces the ability to metabolise glucose and makes people crave carbohydrates and sugars, so they get heavier, which in turn raises the risk of sleep apnoea, creating a vicious cycle.
What can employers do to manage the sleep problem in the workplace?
If a team member shows signs of sleep deprivation, for example difficulty keeping their eyes open, nodding and/or yawning repeatedly, then ask about it discreetly. If it affects the workplace, then it becomes your problem. Explore the issues and discuss whether adjustments should be made. Consider referring the employee to occupational health for guidance. N.B. you will need to get the employee’s consent before you refer them.
- Encourage employees to take holiday. Monitor their working hours and patterns to ensure they are taking enough time off to recharge.
- Identify workers’ chronotypes i.e. whether they work better in the morning or later in the day. For those working 9am – 5pm hours, consider putting employees who function better later in the day, near the window in the morning to keep their serotonin levels up and provide the early birds who function best in the morning with daylight simulator lamps for when they start to flag in the afternoon.
- Develop a proper sleep policy. For example, limit overnight travel as this can severely disrupt sleep, especially if it’s an international flight into a different time zone. If you can’t avoid it, allow the traveller to take at least a day to adapt. Never allow anyone to take an overnight flight and then drive to a business meeting somewhere. He or she should be provided a taxi, car service or shuttle.
- Get your workplace lighting right. According to a study in the US journal Sleep, workers in offices with windows slept an average of 46 minutes more per night than workers without natural light exposure.
- Provide comfortable temperatures and reasonable noise levels, varied work tasks which change throughout the day. If extended hours and overtime are common in your workplace, factor in the time required for employees to commute from home.
- Be age aware! Past the age of 40, sleep is much more fragmented. Older workers wake more easily, and suffer more sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome, insomnia and sleep apnoea.
- Loss of sleep increases levels of appetite and stress hormones, reducing the ability to metabolise glucose. It makes people crave carbohydrates and sugars, so they get heavier, which in turn raises the risk of sleep apnoea, creating a vicious cycle.
- Limit late night emails and discourage your staff from taking electronic gadgets into the bedroom.
This blog has been taken from The Elephant in the Office - Waking up to the risks of sleep deprived staff - A White Paper for employers from Sealy UK by Kate Russell, with comment from Neil Robinson, Sales and Marketing Director, Sealy UK
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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.
Copyright © 2017 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.
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