Sleep's Impact on Workplace and Employee Safety

Honestly, do we need a good excuse to sleep? Most of us run around so exhausted, we collapse into bed at night and grope for the alarm clock in the morning just wishing we could grab a little more shut-eye before the coffee kicks in. Who doesn’t want a good night’s sleep?

As it turns out, sleeping not only feels good – it’s incredibly good for you. Just ask the National Sleep Foundation or any other respected research institution, and the vote is in: sleep is a necessary, non-negotiable biological function. The positive effects of sleep are exhaustively and quantifiably documented in study after study.


Lack of sleep is a lose-lose situation.

And that matters a lot when it comes to the workplace, because unfortunately sleep deprivation can be a major predictor of accidents and injuries among fatigued workers and employees. Decision-making is compromised, and cognitive processes are slowed. The increased risk is stark and sobering.

That translates to wasteful injuries, but also lost productivity and potentially expensive health insurance and litigation costs. No sleep puts everyone involved at a higher risk for compromised safety. Dollar for dollar, employers who invest in the quality sleep of their employees come out on top.

Workplace safety begins with sleep.


Making a Case for Sleep

For starters, the World Health Organization describes sleep as a basic human need. While people may claim that they don’t “need” sleep, or need only very little sleep, scientific research resoundingly confirms that insufficient sleep has massive impacts on health, safety, and human performance – during work hours, and off the clock.

When you can’t fall asleep, you can’t put in your best at work.

Even as research confirms the powerful benefits of a good night’s sleep, sleep disorders and sleep deprivation, unfortunately, are on the rise. Lack of sleep has become the dangerous and unsustainable norm.

In fact, studies confirm that going 24 hours without sleep ­– or a week of sleeping only four to five hours nightly – causes physical, emotional, and cognitive impairments equal to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. As with alcohol consumption, smart decision making becomes dangerously compromised.

Your exhausted employees and fatigued workers might think they can skimp on those crucial hours of sleep, but biology knows better. Workplace safety directly correlates with sufficient sleep.

Everyone is better off with a good night’s sleep.

Your workplace wouldn’t tolerate employees buzzed on the job. Neither should your workplace be expected to function at high levels when your best thinkers and decision-makers are half asleep. An estimated 40% of the population is sleep deprived, receiving fewer than the 7 recommended hours of sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Chances are, they’re on your clock. And there are truly accidents waiting to happen during work hours. It’s not worth the higher risk.

For those insisting that they’re among the lucky few who can get by on minimal sleep? The results are conclusive: Sleep deprivation reduces a person’s ability to self-assess their own performance, creating an increased risk for human error. It turns out that falling asleep, and staying asleep, is the best way to keep self-awareness sound.

The National Sleep Foundation emphasizes the crucial need for each individual to get the appropriate amount of sleep each night.


National Safety Council: Sleep and the Workplace

When it comes to sleep, the National Safety Council message is clear: Get some. Their statement includes the powerful verbiage, “A good night’s sleep is not just a novelty, it’s a necessity.”

According to the Council, “more than 43% of workers are sleep-deprived” – especially among those who work irregular shifts, long shifts, or the night shift. Yet more than 70 million Americans “suffer from a sleep disorder.” Lack of sleep is a national crisis, and that is not hyperbole. Along with that comes a statistically significant increased risk for workplace accidents.

Intriguingly, the National Safety Council places a special responsibility on employers to “educate employees on how to avoid fatigue-related safety incidents.”


Dangers in the Workplace

When people don’t get enough sleep, it’s harder to maintain quality levels of safety – during work hours, or when the workday ends. The effects of sleep deprivation in the workplace, tragically, are hard to overestimate. Study after study points to an increased risk for accidents when employees aren’t getting enough sleep. Every worker needs a good night’s sleep.

It can take fatigued workers longer to react when something unexpected happens, and their judgment is impeded. Problem solving processes are disrupted, as reported in the Harvard Business Review. It becomes harder for your employees to focus, and their spatial orientations are skewed. Lack of sleep translates to a higher risk for your company, and a recipe for danger.

Relatively “harmless” happy hour on a Friday evening? Hopefully your employees stick with the spinach and artichoke dip, because 1 beer can have the equivalent effect of six beers on a well-rested person. No employer wants to be responsible in that scenario, for very good reason.

Speaking of driving, driver sleepiness plays a role in 20 percent of serious car injuries, independent of alcohol effects, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. In fact, highly fatigued workers are 70% more likely to be involved in accidents than workers reporting low fatigue levels. Whether your employees work in driving-related industries or not, there’s still a good chance they’re getting into the car to get to work.

In fact, statistics indicate that no small number of your employees currently suffer from sleep disorders.

Simply put, it’s not worth the risk involving workplace safety. It’s time to begin the conversation with your team about achieving the necessary hours of sleep.


High Risk Industries for Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can be ruinous in those industries which require high sensitivity. Among hospital interns, working for 24 consecutive hours put them at a higher risk for injuring themselves with a needle of scalpel by 61%, as reported in the Harvard Business Review. AOL Travel News reported that in 2010, a sleep deprived pilot caused a Boeing 737 crash in southern India, tragically killing 158 people.

Consider that safety performance “decreases as employees become tired,” according to the National Safety Council, and that 62% of night shift workers “complain about sleep loss.”

This is especially dangerous for employees working rotating shifts, since their internal “body clocks” – also known as circadian rhythm– cannot truly shift to unnatural sleeping patterns. Working the night shift can then become a major health risk.

Those missing hours of sleep only accumulate, increasing the chances of a workplace accident as the ability for sound decision making weakens. In all likelihood, your company cannot afford that increased risk.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “highly sleepy workers are 70% more likely to be involved in accidents than non-sleepy workers.” And unfortunately, individuals affected by chronic insomnia are “far more likely” to report industrial accidents or injuries.

The Foundation describes a Swedish study involving nearly 50,000 people – tragically, those with sleep problems were “nearly twice as likely to die in a work-related accident.” Lack of sleep has powerfully sobering effects in the workplace. A good night’s sleep, conversely, usually translates to a safer workplace.

Sleep deprivation can be dangerous for people who work in industries related to “visual perception,” according to Safety and Health magazine. Examples include power-plant monitors, air-traffic controllers, and baggage screeners. In a related study, employees who slept for fewer than 6 hours each night worked more slowly at making visual decisions in computerized tests, “even though they reported feeling little difference in sleepiness.”

In other words: even your must-trusted employees aren’t the best judge of workplace safety if they are sleep-deprived.

Undiagnosed sleep disorders can also mean that your employees are suffering from related medical conditions that compound to create the unfortunate risk of a workplace accident waiting to happen. Well-rested employees create a safer workplace. The effects of sleep deprivation are only too clear when examining safety-related data.


Understanding the Nature of Risk

Some things are constant variables that just aren’t going to change. For example, workers in many industries are needed to work throughout the night, as the CDC notes. Example services include “public safety, healthcare, utilities, food services, manufacturing, transportation” and others.

We know the increased health risks involved – “poorer sleep, circadian rhythm disturbances, and strains on family and social life.” What to do? Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation are terrible modern-day realities. We can’t eliminate societal needs altogether, so instead a different strategy is needed or we face a higher risk for accidents and compromised workplace safety.

Employers, health care experts, and other partners must work together to implement strategies addressing lack of sleep “while keeping workers healthy and everyone around them safe,” according to the CDC. Even those working irregular hours must achieve the minimum hours of sleep. The positive effects of sleep directly translate to a safer workplace.

Any company stands to benefit when their workers get a good night’s sleep.

At stake for employees: negatively impacted “mental function and physical ability,” and “increased risk of illness and injury,” among other consequences. The CDC also describes safety risks for employers, which include: “increase in errors,” and the resulting “increased health care and worker compensation costs.” What is the risk to the community? According to the CDC, we risk “medical errors, vehicle crashes, and industrial disasters.”


Improving Workplace Safety through Sleep

What’s an employer to do? Safety and Health magazine reports that just telling employees to get more sleep will have “little impact.” The key is individualized education that aligns with each person’s own personal sleep and health goals. When individuals can personally experience the positive effects of sufficient sleep, the buy-in becomes immediately apparent.

The benefit to you? Increased workplace safety.

The National Safety Council, which recommends “science-based fatigue risk management systems” in the workplace, emphasizes that employers are in an “ideal position” to provide sleep health resources to fatigued workers.

The CDC recommends that employers establish a minimum of “10 consecutive hours per day of protected time off-duty” to help mitigate these higher risks. Rest breaks and reduced shift lengths may also be a smart move for fatigued workers. The better rested, the better able to participate in safe, smart decision making.

The payoff for a good night’s sleep? It’s not quite priceless, but it’s pretty close.

Managers can inventory workloads, looking for potential sensitivities. For example, a 12-hour shift might be more tenable for desk work than in a work field involving physical labor since accidents may occur.

Sleep education can help employees make smarter decisions about their own sleep hygiene, avoiding sleep deprivation. For example, reducing access to technology and avoiding caffeine in the hours before bedtime can lead to a better night’s sleep. Employees who are better informed about sleep disorders and their common characteristics are better equipped to talk with their doctors.

Proper training related to shift work can help alleviate the potential downfalls of shift work, according to the CDC. And conscientious employers can engage in “incident analysis,” investigating “near misses and accidents to determine the role, if any, of fatigue as a root cause or contributing cause to the incident.”  

Without a doubt, it’s important to begin those conversations about getting sufficient hours of sleep at home in order to maintain safety in the workplace.