Workplace Fatigue: Bad for Business and Workers
- May 22
- Evans & Herlihy
- Workplace Accidents
Before the age of cell phones and computers, most of the United States workforce reported to work at a certain time, and when they clocked out and came home, they put the workday behind them. But today, many people seem to be always “on the clock” – for example, checking email after dinner and before bedtime.
Maintaining that kind of hectic lifestyle may undermine healthy sleep patterns. So, in an effort to accomplish more in a day – to be more productive – workers may be missing out on valuable hours of sleep, which in turn makes them less productive throughout the day.
Most adults of working age need seven to nine hours of sleep per night – and at the very least, six hours. Getting too little sleep, or sleep of poor quality, may not only interfere with job functions, it can put workers at risk of accidents and injuries.
Sleepiness vs. Fatigue
The terms sleepiness and fatigue have different meanings, as explained by two researchers in Industrial Psychiatry Journal. Sleepiness is the natural feeling everyone experiences when it’s time for bed. Fatigue is the lack of energy or alertness that comes from sleep deprivation, prolonged work hours, and stress.
Workers who are most likely to report feeling fatigue are those in high-stress and high-risk occupations. Doctors, nurses, long-haul truckers, and police officers are among the occupations most likely to suffer from a lack of sleep. When poor or inadequate sleep is an ongoing problem, serious – and deadly – mistakes may occur.
In 2006, Charles A. Czeisler, the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard University Medical School, said that while corporations have policies on the books that prohibit sexual harassment or drinking alcohol on the job, most companies haven’t taken sleeplessness seriously as a threat to employee wellbeing. He said corporate executives have a responsibility to recognize the seriousness of sleep deprivation.
Google, and some other companies where workers are on salary and put in long hours actually allow employees to take naps during the day. Research has shown that naps of 15 to 20 minutes can recharge the brain and jump-start alertness, and naps of 60 to 90 minutes boost the brain’s problem-solving abilities.
One night of too little sleep may not have a big impact on alertness or job performance the next day. But a person who gets only five hours of sleep four nights in a row will suffer from “sleep debt” – the cumulative effect of inadequate rest.
The human body will rest when it needs to, and at a certain point, people have no control over when that happens. So someone with a weekly sleep debt of eight hours may suddenly lose consciousness while driving, because the brain has decided it’s time to rest. The National Sleep Foundation says people can “catch up” on sleep, but only to a certain extent – it may be possible to, on the weekend, make up for a few lost hours, but not for a habitual pattern of getting too little sleep.
Sleep deprivation has been a factor in several disasters, including the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, Russia, that contaminated 77,220 square miles of land, killed 31 people, and may be responsible for thousands of other long-term deaths, due to radiation exposure.