Sleep experts recommend 7–9 hours of sleep per night but many adults fail to achieve these regular sleep hours. High workplace demands, long work hours, lengthy commutes, disrupted circadian rhythms, social and societal demands, and insufficient sleep lead to tired workers.

Sleep is especially a problem for workers in production, health care, protective services, transportation and food services mostly because of the high levels of shift work in these occupations.

Sleep quality, sleep quantity, sleep timing, the amount of wake time since the last sleep period, and recovery from long stints of duty are critical determinants of waking performance and associated safety. Failure to obtain adequate sleep per day and remaining awake for longer than 16 continuous hours, significantly reduces both alertness and performance.

Reduced sleep leads to adverse effects on cognitive performance including reduced vigilance, increased lapses of attention, short term memory degradation, and deficits in frontal lobe functions. Remaining awake on any single occasion for more than 24 hours reduces reaction time, attention, memory and decision making. Employees who experience 5 nights of severe sleep restriction will not fully recover after a single night of 10 hours of sleep.

Inadequate Sleep Affects Worker Mental Health
Inadequate sleep has a direct effect on our mental health. When we’re tired we fail to express our emotions effectively, in that we fail to recognise others’ emotions and we have an increase in our own emotional response in that we can either overreact or underreact to situations.

Sleep deprivation can lead to increased irritability, anger and hostility. Lack of sleep creates overreactions to problematic events and reduced friendliness, happiness and empathy. Sleep-deprived individuals are less able to appreciate humour and are worse at resolving interpersonal conflicts.

Lack of sleep has been associated with an increase in mood disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. People who suffer from insomnia are at elevated risk for depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, substance misuse and nicotine dependence.

Inadequate sleep can also have a negative impact on workplace safety. Lack of sleep leads to reduced attention, memory, decision making, vigilance, reaction time, mood, arousal, and emotional/affective regulation. Insufficient sleep negatively impacts blood pressure, work capacity and productivity, and physical performance reaction time. Several studies of night shift work suggest errors are more likely to be related to time-of-day than to time-on-task, with the greatest risk occurring in the early morning hours, coinciding with the circadian period of peak sleepiness.

Strategies to Manage Fatigue
Here are a number of strategies that can be used to manage workplace fatigue and encourage good sleep habits:

  1. Educate – It is critical that employees learn about the dangers of fatigue and the importance of obtaining adequate sleep. They need to understand that full recovery from fatigue may take longer than anticipated and that good sleep habits are essential for ensuring optimal sleep quality.
  2. Optimise sleep opportunities – It is important to keep consistent bedtimes and to use the bedroom only for sleep. Try to resolve worry issues to minimise sleep-disrupting thoughts (e.g., write a list with actions before bedtime), exercise regularly, but not too close to bedtime, create a dark, quiet, cool and comfortable sleep environment, manage caffeine and alcohol intake, and avoid smoking before bed.
  3. Avoid watching the clock – If sleep does not occur in 20 minutes get up, go into another room, and engage in something boring (or at least something that is not stimulating) until you begin feeling sleepy, at which time return to the bedroom and try to fall asleep in bed once again.
  4. Napping – A nap during long periods of continuous wakefulness can significantly improve alertness and performance. Taking a nap during the day before an all-night work shift will improve performance over the night compared to not napping. However, sleep inertia occurs immediately after waking from a nap where feelings of grogginess and reduced cognitive and motor performance can occur. When napping is proposed as a fatigue countermeasure and skilled performance is required immediately following the nap, allow 30 minutes for sleep inertia to dissipate.
  5. Short rest breaks – Encourage employees to stand up and move about every 50 minutes – 60 minutes to change their posture and provide a mental break from the task.
  6. Adequate lighting – Blue light appears to be especially effective at enhancing alertness. However, blue light is detrimental when trying to sleep. Avoid using electronic devices when attempting to sleep, alternatively use blue light-blocking glasses or blue-blocking apps.
  7. Behavioural strategies – Stimulus-control therapy creates positive associations with bedtime and strengthens the association between sleep and the bedroom. Progressive muscle relaxation reduces physical tension whereas imagery training focuses on reducing intrusive thoughts and mental tension. Mindfulness meditation can reduce sleep-related arousal, or anxiety, by increasing positive mental and physical states.
  8. Medications – When sleep is difficult, prescription sleep aids may be the only way to get a good night’s sleep. Generally, sleep aids are intended for short-term use when other options are not adequate. There are numerous prescription options available, along with herbal remedies to enhance sleep.