A Wake-Up Call About Sleepiness and Fatigue at Work

Millions of Americans do not get enough sleep, which can have a significant effect on your health, safety, productivity and quality of life. Learn more.

According to a national poll administered by the American Sleep Foundation, more than one-third of the U.S. workforce report daytime sleepiness, which amounts to approximately 5.7 million individuals, or roughly the entire population of Denmark.*

Fatigue and sleepiness are considered serious workplace hazards. They are different, but can be experienced together. Sleepiness refers to the neurobiological need to sleep (you know that feeling when you just can’t hold your head up), while fatigue is a result of prolonged mental or physical exertion. When you are fatigued, you don’t have enough energy to do work or finish a certain activity.**

Stephanie Betz, RPSGT, Administrative Director, Lehigh Valley Hospital Sleep Disorders Centers, points out there are a range of reasons why employees may be deprived of the recommended eight hours of sleep. She says insufficient sleep time and circadian influences are culprits, as are advanced or delayed sleep phases, shift work, or medical conditions. "Sleep quantity is just as important as the quality," says Betz. "You may get enough sleep, but the quality may be poor due to sleep disorders." Common ones include obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, periodic limb movements, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy.

What are the Effects of Tired Workers?

Typical effects of sleepiness and fatigue are a decreased motivation to complete tasks, longer reaction time, less alertness, impaired concentration, problems in memory and information processing, and poor judgment.** Unfortunately, these effects are associated with unfavorable events, from industrial disasters and road accidents to increased health care costs and a reduction in overall wellness, performance, and productivity.

To understand everyday worksite risks, it’s worthwhile to look at data from the National Health Interview Survey. The estimated annual injury incidence rate per 100 workers is 7.89 for U.S. workers who usually sleep less than five hours per day, compared with 2.27 per 100 workers among those who tend to sleep between seven and eight hours.*** Employers end up paying the price for these statistics. Costs attributed to fatigue-related, health-related lost productive work time from accidents and injuries stack up to an estimated annual cost of $136.4 billion according to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

What can Employers do?

LVHN's Betz says that employers can assist employees in the quest for more and better sleep, or at least can provide accommodations for those who may be at risk for sleep deprivation. She offers a number of considerations that may help mitigate accidents related to sleepiness and fatigue – either on the job or as employees travel to-and-from work.

  • Encourage healthy behaviors such as regular exercise, smoking cessation, proper nutrition, socialization, and work-life balance.
  • Evaluate shift start and end times. Are extended hours really necessary?
  • Allow short naps of up to 15 to 20 minutes during a shift if it fits in with the type of work that is being done.
  • Ensure there is sufficient coverage for staff on vacation or sick leave. If overtime is necessary, plan for it so employees can schedule their activities around it.
  • Minimize morning starts before 6 a.m., and avoid more than five consecutive early morning starts. Encourage car-pooling or provide transportation for workers.
  • Avoid safety-critical tasks during the early hours of the morning, and provide supervision for these tasks.
  • Evaluate the lighting in your facility. Employees should be exposed to bright light on their shift. Timed exposure to bright light helps reset the internal clock.
  • Encourage employees to work together to combat fatigue, for example, a buddy system to alert coworkers when they appear tired.
  • Consider personal health coaching or stress reduction education for employees as a way to help them maintain balance in their lives.

 *Occupational Sleep Medicine, Philip Cheng, PhD, Christopher Drake, PhD, Sleep Disorders and Research Center, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, MI, USA, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2015.10.006

"When you sacrifice sleep, your energy levels, judgement, attention, and memory all suffer. In one study, sleep deprivation was found to have similar effects as being under the influence of alcohol as far as judgement and reflexes. The Department of Transportation estimates 1,550 fatal car crashes and 40,000 non-fatal crashes a year are caused by drowsy drivers. And people who are sleep deprived don’t even realize they are functioning at a lower or possibly unsafe level."

– Christie Lanasa, CHWC, RN, Ed.S, NBC-HWC, Health Coach

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