From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Sleep – It’s Just Part of the Job

Whether it’s too much holiday cheer or a mad scramble to log in extra hours at the workplace to square things away before some much-needed time off, workers around the holidays who miss out on a few zzzzs could have a greater effect on the workplace than their bleary eyes might indicate.

Lost productivity, increased accident potential, difficultly in making decisions: they’re just a few of the workplace realities of too little sleep for workers.  And, in some industries, the holidays can make matters even worse.

“If you have a 24/7 operation, to support that operation you have to have a steady volume of work,” William Sirois, Chief Operating Officer of Circadian Technologies, told The Ergonomics ReportTM.  “In an oil refinery for example, every workstation is filled, every hour, every day, so in that mode of operation what drives the overtime is staffing levels.  If you’re short staffed [because of holiday vacations or travel], you’ll have a lot of overtime.” Sirois continued.

A 2003 survey by British recruiting firm Office Angels found that over half of all workers surveyed dreaded the holiday season because of the increased stress associated with staffing shortages; in turn, only a quarter said they enjoyed the peace afforded the office by the smaller workforce.  So while time off can be a bonus to the worker who is taking the break, for the worker who may be picking up the slack, particularly in the form of overtime hours, and ultimately losing sleep, it can cause lead to any number of problems. 

“A mature adult requires on average 8.4 hours of sleep per night,” said Sirois. “Most of us are getting 7.5 hours at best. The less we sleep, the more we start to slide down a slippery slope of human alertness.” Sirois indicates that when workers are well-rested, motor skills, cognitive functions and reasoning help workers perform their best.  But as the amount of sleep decreases, so do the mental functions.  “They begin to deteriorate noticeably,” said Sirois. 

How big of a problem is sleepiness? According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation costs over $100 billion annually in lost productivity, medical expenses, time off and property damage. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) estimates that over 100,000 car accidents are attributable annually to drowsy drivers and over 50 percent of all drivers in the United States have admitted to driving while sleepy (17 percent also said they fell asleep at the wheel).  Bigger accidents, like the Exxon Valdez, the Challenger and Cherynoble, can be traced back to a lack of sleep.  And for an individual, a lack of sleep can mean reduced mental and physical performance.  A Wheaton College study of athletes found, for example, that lack of sleep could cause a drop in cardiovascular performance of up to 11 percent and mental performance that was affected at twice that rate.

It Happens to Everyone

It’s estimated that 95 percent of Americans, at some point in their lives, will be sleep deprived.  And aside from accidents in the workplace, when impaired judgment is factored into the mix, said Sirois, that lack of sleep can create a host of problems for an employer.

“When we’re aware of what’s around us, our cognitive, reasoning and motor skills are good. In that mode of being, we are able to perform at our best.  As we decrease the amount of sleep we get, those mental functions deteriorate,” said Sirois.  And what do those impaired mental functions mean to a workplace?  Sirois gives an example: “In a study of railroad engineers, researchers found that for every hour of sleep that [engineers] lost from eight hours [per night], the engineers burned 100 gallons more fuel. Their braking and throttling actions became erratic, their skill levels diminished.”

A 1997 project by the National Sleep Foundation, “Sleep, Pain and the Workplace,” surveyed over 400 respondents to determine how  work was affected by bouts of poor sleep. The results showed the following:

¨     63 percent had more difficulty handling stressful situations.

¨     60 percent reported more difficulty concentrating on the task they were performing.

¨     57 percent experienced more difficulties listening to what others were saying.

¨     55 percent had difficulties solving problems on the job.

¨     48 percent had difficulty making decisions.

¨     43 percent had more difficulty relating to their co-workers.

Respondents in the survey also said their concentration was about 70 percent of normal on days following a poor-sleep night and that they accomplished only 76 percent of what they could have accomplished if they had been well rested. Lastly, respondents also admitted that with poor sleep, their quality diminished by 20 percent.

Adding overtime to the mix, said Sirois, whose company has just released its annual report, Shiftwork Practices 2005, is “about the same thing as when we throw gasoline in fire.” But it’s not just the length of time we work, said Sirois, it’s when we work that can also have an effect on performance.  “Assuming there’s not heavy physical labor, we can work a lot during the daytime, we can function safely. Trying to do that with a night shift is asking for problems.  Sleep deprivation is what happens. The average night shift worker already only gets 5.2 hours of sleep if female and 5.5 hours if they’re male.”  Turnover and absenteeism rates also increase.

Holidays can intensify that affect – 24/7 operations need to continue operating even while some employees are taking vacation time so overtime goes up.  Other businesses, like retail, do approximately 75 percent of all of their business during the holiday season, meaning more overtime. Even in the office, workers aren’t immune to the sleeplessness resulting from an increased workload: corporate downsizing has also intensify the overtime burden for desk workers.

Coping or Changing?

Sleepiness is a worldwide phenomenon.  In Spain, where the siesta  — a midday nap — is rapidly losing favor due to globalization, Spaniards are estimated to now  get an hour less sleep than workers in other European countries.  In an interview with the U.K.’s Independent, Fernando Burgueras y Back, director of Spain’s Independent Association, linked this lost hour to higher rates of traffic, home and workplace accidents for Spaniards.

Sleepiness is so rampant in the United States that private businesses are  surfacing with the sole goal of helping individuals get additional rest. For example, New York’s MetroNaps sells time in napping pods for weary workers who want to get a little lunchtime shuteye.  Elsewhere, sleep consultants provide advice at a premium price for new parents regarding how to get their children to sleep more, which in turn means the parents can get more rest. Hotel chains are tackling sleeplessness for business travelers by promoting sleep-friendly rooms equipped with heavy drapes, earplugs, eye masks, white-noise machines and whole floors designated as “quiet zones.”

But one of the best recourses an employer may have for improving worker sleep is through scheduling that allows workers to get the rest they need.  Increasing staff to reduce overtime, says Sirois, can actually save a workplace money. “If companies think they’re saving money by short staffing and paying overtime, they’re wrong.  When you factor in benefits to hire new person, you’re paying 1.5 times for every new employee.  What are you paying in overtime?” he said.

Changing shift demands can help, too; while a workplace can’t force a worker to sleep on his or her time off, it can offer enough time between shifts for workers to get a solid eight hours and some to spare.  In the United States, rules for truck drivers were modified in early 2004 in an attempt to give drivers 10 hours of rest between shifts for better sleep (the rule was overturned later in the year because of its failure to provide a mid-day break for drivers).  Medical residents now have a mandatory 10 hours between shifts and cannot work for more than 24 hours straight to help curb sleepiness-related medical errors.

Sirois notes that when his company helps a 24/7 operation with scheduling, one of the most important factors is giving workers two days off in a row to recover. The same holds true for non-shift workers who may be trying to cheat their own internal sleep clocks and squeeze a few more hours into a day.  “You have to pay back sleep debt,” said Sirois. 

From a personal angle, employees can do their part to catch up on their rest, too, by ensuring that they get sufficient sleep as often as possible. And the holiday reveler who attempts to cheat his or her internal time-clock and squeeze the most of every day can rest a little better knowing that the payback of lost sleep doesn’t have to be hour-for-hour.  Even with accumulated sleep deprivation, said Sirois, “two good nights sleep away from job should put you back to normal.”

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2004-12-22.