How to Avoid the Dangers of Sleep-Deprivation in the Workplace

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Want to reduce accidents and promote a safer workplace? Addressing sleep-deprivation is a good start.

In today's do-more, hustle-harder culture, downtime is a weakness. Overtime is lauded or, in some cases, required to get the job done.

But to Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, this kind of work behavior is the antithesis of high performance. According to Czeisler, it endangers employees and puts businesses at risk.

The Risks of Sleep Deprivation

Czeisler says we have four neurobiological functions that affect sleep duration and quality as well as individual performance. When you are sleep deprived, these functions fall out of alignment, and you operate at a far lower level of performance than you would if you were well-rested.

One of these adverse effects is on cognitive performance, says Czeisler. The results can be similar to those that occur after drinking too much alcohol:

"We now know that 24 hours without sleep or a week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%. We would never say, 'This person is a great worker! He's drunk all the time!' yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep for work."

The Costs of Sleep Deprivation

Employees who are sleep-deprived not only come to work operating at "impaired" levels, increasing the risk of accidents and errors but these mistakes can also drive up employer costs.

Companies with sleep-deprived employees have five times higher workers' compensation costs than companies where workers tend to get adequate sleep.

"Companies tend to pay, on average, an extra $1,200 a year in medical and other costs for each worker who is sleep-deprived," said Dr. Leena Johns, global medical and wellness director for MetLife.

Sleep Deprivation is On the Rise

Why are we collectively so sleep-deprived? According to experts, sleep deprivation is on the rise because of:

  • Longer commutes to work.
  • Less time spent in natural light and more time indoors
  • Screens: smartphones and tablets that emit blue light and disrupt sleep
  • Medical conditions such as sleep apnea from obesity
  • A culture that values over-work

How To Reduce Sleep Deprivation in the Workplace

Going home with your employees and making sure they get to bed at a reasonable time probably isn't part of your employment contract.

Even though you can't police what your employees do once they get home at night, you can make moves to reduce sleep deprivation.

Czeisler recommends that companies institute corporate sleep-friendly policies that discourage scheduled work beyond 16 consecutive hours as well as working or driving immediately after late-night or overnight flights.

In addition to implementing sleep-friendly policies, your company can include sleep in its workplace safety training.

Vendors can conduct fatigue risk-management surveys and screening that can pinpoint which employees need treatment for sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. Schneider National trucking company monitors employees' sleep as part of a comprehensive sleep apnea program with encouraging results. Treating employees with sleep apnea -- by providing them with CPAP machines -- increased retention and reduced preventable accidents by 73%.

Create a culture that prioritizes healthy sleep, rest, and downtime away from work, rather than one that applauds dedication to the job at the sacrifice of sleep. Well-rested employees are safer and more productive, and that can pay off big for your company.

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