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Sleep and safety-critical work

17th August 2018

Sleeping fewer than six hours a night can impair your ability to perform simple tasks, regardless of whether or not you feel rested, a study has argued. The idea that we can fool ourselves into thinking we have had enough sleep is important when it comes to managing workplace health and performance, especially safety-critical work.

Employee health and wellbeing – understanding the links between sleep and alertness

Getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night can impair a person’s ability to perform simple tasks and be fit for work, regardless of whether or not they feel rested, a US study has argued.

The study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), concluded most people do not notice the effects of under-sleeping and even reported feeling alert.

Senior study author Dr Elizabeth Klerman, from the hospital’s division of sleep and circadian disorders, said: “If somebody is routinely awake for more than 18 hours daily, then they are also routinely sleeping for less than six hours daily.

“The findings showed that participants with restricted sleep had a five-fold increase in attention lapses and doubled neuro-behavioural reaction time compared to the controls.

“We found that chronic short sleep duration, even without extended wakefulness, resulted in vigilant performance impairments,” she added.

What, then, should employers take away from this?

Importance of ‘good’ sleep

First, it is important to recognise that sleep is a complex body recovery process. Just because we have had “some” sleep, and even if we may be telling ourselves that we are absolutely fine to do the task ahead of us, that may not necessarily always be the case.

This will be, of course, especially important within a safety-critical environment or for those who need to drive for work. But it can also be a valuable lesson to learn within any working environment.

What it also highlights is the importance of “good” sleep in terms of health and wellbeing. We’re all different and all require different amounts of sleep, but we all also need to have proper down-time and recovery time. We can’t keep on burning the candle at both ends indefinitely.

Beyond harming concentration, performance and productivity, there are potentially significant employee health consequences that can come from a lack of sleep.

For example, people with poorly-controlled obstructive sleep apnoea can be at greater risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension), having a stroke or heart attack, developing an irregular heartbeat – such as atrial fibrillation,  and developing type 2 diabetes.

Cost of sleep loss and insomnia

There are tools out there that can help. For example, Public Health England and Business in the Community have recently published a sleep and recovery “toolkit” for employers.

This highlighted that sleep loss costs the UK some £30bn a year, with 200,000 working days lost because if insufficient sleep, and one person in three affected by insomnia.

The toolkit offers tips and advice for how employees and employers alike can take a more positive, preventative and proactive approach to sleep and recovery.

Critically, as Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health makes the point, the first step is recognising there is a sleep and workplace health problem, either in yourself and your own sleep patterns or in what your organisation is demanding or expecting of employees.

“Understanding the importance – the value – of good sleep is especially important in our increasingly ‘always-on’ modern working world, where people can be contacted and connected at all hours,” she says.

“This is about helping employees develop good pre-sleep habits – for example not using screens late at night – but also about employers recognising that employees cannot work all hours all the time without consequences for their health, wellbeing and performance. As this latest study shows, this is the case even if they think they have had managed to grab enough sleep to function.”