Identifying & combatting sleep deprivation & fatigue in the workplace

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the optimal amount of sleep is seven to nine hours a night. Inadequate sleep affects many essential functions of working safely by reducing reaction time, motor control, decision-making and situational awareness. And most worrisome is that over time, workers don’t even realize how sleepy they actually are.

Americans are known for self-imposed sleep deprivation. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders, said one of the root causes of the U.S. ‘sleep epidemic’ is the societal belief that sleep is not a priority.

An American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) Guidance Statement, “Fatigue Risk Management in Workplaces,” published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (Vol. 54, No. 2), identified the following signs that an employee’s sleep may be inadequate:

  • Physical signs -Yawning, drooped eyelids or head, rubbing one’s eyes, digestive problems, and microsleeps (unnoticed periods of sleep lasting less than one second to 30 seconds)
  • Mental and performance signs – Difficulty concentrating on tasks, lapses in attention, difficulty remembering tasks being performed, forgetting to communicate important information, and incorrectly performing tasks
  • Emotional and behavioral signs – Becoming quieter or withdrawn, low energy; and lacking motivation to perform work well

Although workers may believe they can ‘catch up’ on their sleep on the weekend, research shows ‘catch up’ sleep is not effective in keeping workers safe. In a study published online Oct. 1, 2013, in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, participants who slept six hours for six consecutive nights did not improve their performance on tests measuring their attention after they slept for 10 hours for three nights. Although participants reported feeling less stressed and sleepy after the three-day ‘weekend,’ they were still affected by the long-term sleep deprivation.

To manage sleep disorders in the workplace, ACOEM says that the first step is to screen for sleep disorders through a questionnaire, possibly combined with a physical exam. Before trying medications or behavioral therapy, individuals can try preventive strategies that include:

  • Waking up at the same time every day, if possible
  • Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine before bed
  • Exercising, but not within 3 hours of going to bed
  • Sleeping in a dark, quiet, cool room
  • Keeping a sleep diary to record sleep patterns and problems
  • Napping, but not if you suffer from insomnia

If necessary, treatment can include:

  • Behavior modification
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (C-PAP) equipment
  • Medications

There are also factors in the workplace that can affect workers’ alertness. Employers should assess light, temperature, humidity, noise, ergonomic design and break patterns. Heavy, fatiguing work may require more breaks than lighter activity, and workers whose jobs require constant vigilance may need extra breaks to sustain their attention.

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Author | Speaker | Certified Risk Manager | Certified Work Comp Advisor

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