Being tired on the job can have deadly consequences.
And while most people aren’t in charge of nuclear reactors, everyone makes hundreds of complex split-second decisions every day. When you're tired, your ability to make the right decision is impaired, along with mood and reaction time. A bad night of sleep can impact even the best employee’s performance.
It’s a cultural issue, and it’s costing companies money.
About 37% of the workforce is sleep-deprived at any time, meaning they get six hours or less of sleep a night. But while we might take it lightly in our modern 24/7 society; it’s no joke. Being tired on the job increases the chance of making a costly or even dangerous mistake.
"Working long hours and sleeping less than the recommended seven or more hours has become a badge of honor in many industries, despite evidence that proves a lack of sleep hurts productivity, safety and overall health," said Dr. Ilene Rosen, President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). "It is essential for employers to promote health and safety by creating a workplace culture that values the importance of sleep."
It’s not just a safety issue either. According to the National Sleep Council (NSC), fatigued workers cost employers about $1,200 to $3,100 per employee in declining job performance each year. Sleepy workers are estimated to cost employers about $136 billion a year in health-related lost productivity too.
Want to see just how much tired workers could be costing your company? Then try the Fatigue Cost Calculator. It was developed by NSC and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to help employers gauge how much fatigue may be adding to annual expenditures.
The solution? Help workers develop better sleeping habits.
The National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project – with the help of its partners the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Sleep Research Society (SRS) and the National Safety Council (NSC) – has launched the "Sleep Works for You" campaign.
The initiative encourages employers to help workers avoid fatigue and develop better healthy sleeping habits that will contribute to their success and well-being.
The National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project encourages employers to support their employee’s sleep health by;
- Learning about sleepiness in the workplace, its costs, its causes and how fatigue can lead to a higher rate of safety incidents.
- Educating employees on fatigue, sleep health and sleep disorders, as well as strategies to improve alertness on the job. It can be a stand-alone training program, or part of a comprehensive employee wellness program.
- Finding out why people are tired on the job and implementing fatigue risk management techniques as part of a safety management system.
How to help shift workers get some more sleep.
3 out of 10 working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night, and some workers are more sleep-deprived than others.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics says about 15% of full-time employees in the U.S. perform shift work, many of whom suffer from chronic sleep loss caused by a disruption in the body's circadian rhythm, which controls a person’s sleep cycles.
People generally are the most tired between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. because of that natural biological rhythm, and it’s very difficult to change by more than a couple of hours either way. The National Sleep Foundation says we think we can stay alert when we’re tired, but we can’t. Sleep is such a powerful biological event that it’s easy for even the most diligent driver to be overcome by it.
It’s more common for workers in these professions to miss out on a full night’s sleep:
- Mining and Quarrying – 41.6%
- Utilities and Power – 38.0%
- Public Administration – 34.3%
- Manufacturing – 34.1%
- Transportation and Warehousing – 32.7%
- Transportation and Warehousing – 69.7%
- Health Care and Social Assistance – 52.3%
- Public Administration – 44.1%
- Manufacturing – 41.4%
- Accommodation and Food Service – 37.8%
Employers can help shift workers fight fatigue using these strategies:
1) Don’t assign someone to the night-shift permanently.
Workers on the night shift are the most likely group to be sleep-deprived.
A person’s abilities to quickly think and act are impacted when they try to fight their natural sleep cycles. Experts say that when a person is tired, they are in a worse mood and might not make the best decisions or manage people well. They also are willing to take more risks and might not think something all the way through.
That can be a dangerous state-of-mind when someone is trying to make a split-second decision in a stressful situation, like a police officer or a doctor.
Chronic sleep deprivation is also tied to depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses that harm an employee’s health and well-being.
So focus on coming up with reasonable night-shift time frames when considering long-term staffing plans.
2) Give workers regular, predictable schedules.
Not everyone can avoid the night shift, but they can avoid the worst of the schedule’s negative effects by having a consistent schedule they can adjust to.
Those biological sleep cycles we all have can adapt a lot better with a predictable routine. It’s much harder for the body to adjust to a schedule that regularly rotates between day and night shifts.
It can also help people who work the night shift still enjoy a regular schedule on their days off. By properly adjusting their sleep routine, they can avoid falling into a more nocturnal pattern, where they wouldn’t be able to sleep until late in the morning and be awake all night.
3) Avoid long shift lengths.
Sleepiness is a constant struggle for workers who face long shifts. They can have a tough time falling asleep, or not give themselves enough time to properly rest up. Not to mention, long shifts cut into their ability to take care of other things, which could add to their stress load.
Adding to that, shift workers sometimes have irregular eating habits, or a poor diet – and both can impact a person’s natural sleep rhythm. Chronic sleep deprivation is also tied to a list of health concerns like obesity and depression.
Sleeping less than six hours a night will increase your risk for:
- Obesity by 20%.
- Stroke by 22%.
- Diabetes by 25%.
- Coronary heart disease by 35%.
4) Give employees a voice in their schedules.
Not every schedule works for everyone. There are several different shift work schedules that can be difficult for a manager to staff, including;
- Early-morning shifts.
- Night shifts.
- Overnight shifts.
- Rotating shifts.
Some people have a more difficult time with certain shift work schedules over other ones. A self-proclaimed night owl might be alright working from 4 p.m. to midnight, but would hate the idea of having to be at work at 8 a.m. A parent might also have childcare needs that have to be taken into consideration, or someone might not mind having their days off move around each week.
While you might not be able to accommodate everyone’s wishes, by filling more undesirable shifts with people who don’t mind working them will help limit call-outs and staff turnover while keeping more employees happier overall.
5) Rotate shifts forward when they regularly change.
Officials recommend that shifts rotate forward from day to afternoon to night. Circadian rhythms adjust better when moving forward, rather than trying to go back.
While there is still some debate on how many days a worker should be on a specific shift before making a change, the most common rotation period is one week – with five to seven consecutive shifts. However, since it normally takes at least seven days to adjust circadian rhythms, critics argue that a worker should stay on the same shift for anywhere from two weeks to a month. The problem with this approach is workers can have trouble going back to a normal schedule on their days off.
There are others who think that rapid shift rotations are the way to go. They say that by switching a worker’s schedule every two to three days, their sleep cycles aren’t as impacted, and they can enjoy a more regular schedule on their days off.
This is something where individual difference and preferences play a big role, so asking shift workers what their preferences are could really help you decide what the best approach is for your business.
6) Provide frequent breaks within shifts.
Breaks make people more productive.
Experts say that besides helping workers avoid “decision fatigue” – where someone wears out mentally from making so many choices during the day – breaks also help people concentrate better once they do get back to work.
Breaks are shown to help get the creative juices flowing too; they replenish mental resources and help people come back with a fresh perspective. Studies suggest that breaks even help people form stronger memories.
There’s also research that shows that prolonged concentration on a single task can actually hurt productivity. By taking breaks, experts say someone can be more effective for more hours in the day compared to someone who just tries to plow through it.
A few extra minutes out of the working day will actually mean more gets done.
Safety officials urge employers with personnel in safety-sensitive positions to implement a fatigue risk management system, but any organization can benefit from having more well-rested employees.