Shift work plays an important part in our 24/7 economy, yet many workers struggle to achieve proper rest and a healthy sleep cycle. PETA SIGLEY offers practical tips for how employers can improve the sleep health of their shift workers.
From a business standpoint, shift work is an effective way to meet the demands of a 24/7 economy. Yet while it sustains business operations around the clock, it can also put staff wellbeing and workplace safety at risk. According to a recent study by the University of Western Australia, 97% of shift workers are unable to adjust their body clocks between day and night shifts, meaning they miss out on good quality sleep as a result. Furthermore, research shows that 80% of shift workers feel tired at work, 60% believe they doze off at work at least once a week and 20% actually fall asleep during a night shift.
One of the main reasons people struggle is because shift work, particularly night shift, requires a sleep–wake schedule that conflicts with our biological clocks in both sleep and wakefulness. On average, a shift worker’s sleep cycle is 2–4 hours shorter than that of a day worker, their sleep tends to be lighter and frequently interrupted, and they are more likely to experience sleep loss, excessive sleepiness, sleep deprivation and insomnia.
It is unsurprising then that shift work presents unique health risks. If unaddressed, prolonged fatigue can lead to poor physical health — including migraines, poor immunity, insulin resistance, heart disease and stroke — and can have a negative impact on mental health too, as extreme fatigue and feelings of isolation can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. It is a frightening prospect, but the dangers do not stop there. When it comes to workplace operations, fatigue can cause poor concentration and focus, flawed memory, slower reaction times and an overall reduction in productivity and performance.
This kind of impaired cognitive functioning leads to an increased risk of accidents. Research shows the incidence of workplace accidents is 60% higher among shift workers compared to non-shift workers. In fact, a report by the Sleep Health Foundation found the consequences of poor sleep health are costing Australian businesses $26.2 billion annually. It is critical that employers take measures to ensure fatigue does not create workplace health and safety risks, not only because of their duty of care to staff, but to avoid the significant price tag attached to poor sleep.
To support sleep health in the workplace, employers can:
In addition, it is important that employers encourage healthy sleep habits in their staff. While the nature of shift work is unlikely to change, it is crucial that shift workers understand the importance of maintaining a healthy sleep cycle. Employers should encourage workers to:
Shift work will always present challenges, but if we intend to keep up with the demands of a global economy, it is critical that we support the health and safety of workers, helping ensure a better quality of life beyond the workplace as well.
Peta Sigley. Image credit: © Springfox
Peta Sigley is the co-founder and Chief Knowledge Officer at Springfox, a provider of evidence-based resilience programs for professionals and organisations.
Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS