How Did You Sleep Last Night?

Odds are, not well—and neither did your workforce.

Life is hectic. It’s hard to shut down and relax. Children and pets keep us awake, and the blue light of our digital screens disturbs our natural sleep patterns.

But lack of sleep is more than a nuisance. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) calls insufficient sleep a public health problem. The agency blames vehicle crashes, medical errors, industrial disasters and other occupational accidents on sleep deprivation. These accidents and injuries cost businesses $31 billion a year.

Clearly, when it comes to workplace safety, sleep is every company’s business.

Zzzzz: What’s the Problem?

Adults should sleep at least 7 hours a night, according to national sleep associations. Yet 40 percent of people get less. That number rises to 50 percent among night-shift workers.

More than 18 million Americans experience sleep apnea – a pause in breathing while sleeping. Apnea results in interrupted sleep, restless nights and decreased alertness during the day. Risk factors include being over age 40, overweight and male, but anyone can experience apnea.

Poor sleep – from any cause – can affect safety on the job. Watch for these sleep-related risks in your workplace:

Dangerous driving: People who operate a car, truck or other machinery when they are drowsy are as impaired as someone driving drunk, studies have found. Driving drowsy causes an estimated 328,000 accidents per year. It’s more common among shift workers, commercial drivers and people who have sleep apnea. In fact, the dangers of sleep apnea are so serious that the Department of Transportation now requires screening truck drivers for possible sleep apnea.

Impaired cognition: Sleepy workers have poorer memories. They also perform worse at tasks involving reaction time, decision-making, attention and learning. Distracted workers mean productivity losses and a higher likelihood of accidents.

More incidence of disease: People who regularly sleep less than seven hours a night have a higher frequency of chronic illnesses including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Lack of sleep can affect mental health, too, causing depression.

6 Ways to Build a Sleep-Promoting Workplace

Study after study has proven the dangers of workers who lose sleep. Conversely, helping your employees get enough sleep can boost safety on the job.

Employers can improve sleep-related safety with ideas like these:

  1. Ease into schedule changes: If workers must change shifts, allow them to make the transition over several days or a week.
  2. Work with the internal clock: If possible, allow workers to be most productive at the peaks of their circadian energy level. Schedule tasks in sync with natural body rhythms. Many accidents occur around 2 p.m., when most people are at their least alert. Plan more demanding or dangerous work for the morning, whenever possible. Suggest that workers complete rote tasks during the mid-afternoon lull.
  3. Watch for signs of exhaustion: Many of us have seen an employee’s desk littered with bottles of Red Bull, or a worker with glazed eyes. Pay attention to indications that a worker is tired and perhaps shouldn’t be engaging in tasks that demand focus.
  4. Stock healthy picker-uppers: Take a look at your company vending machine. Are you encouraging healthy choices? Make sure workers can stay hydrated with water, and snack on fruit, carrot sticks, sunflower kernels or nuts, popcorn or baked chips.
  5. Have workers check their necks: One common measure of whether a person might be at risk for sleep apnea is a neck larger than 17 inches for men, or 16 inches for women. Treatment can eliminate symptoms and improve health and safety. You can mount posters to raise awareness about sleep apnea and its treatment.
  6. Start a worksite wellness program: One benefit of worksite wellness programs is that they often encourage workers to use a fitness tracker. Most of these devices now measure sleep duration and quality. Some users report that monitoring their sleep makes them more aware of when they aren’t sleeping enough, so that they can change their habits. Eating healthy foods, getting more exercise (even walking) and controlling stress all can improve health—and help workers sleep better.

Workforces in other nations, from China to Spain, take a break for sleep during the day. That may not be feasible everywhere, but staying alert to the challenges of sleep deprivation is one way to build a safer workplace.