The number of Americans who get fewer than seven hours of sleep has reached epidemic proportions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about a third of Americans get insufficient sleep.
This can have a major negative effect on the workplace, especially in today’s world of nontraditional working hours and 24-hour, multishift facilities.
Lack of sleep can increase the risk of work accidents, car crashes and mistakes in judgment, in addition to the obvious decreased productivity.
Mental function, emotional resilience and physical capacity may be jeopardized in sleep-deprived workers, increasing the possibility of injury or significant errors.
Additionally, the associated effect on the immune system increases the risk of illness and absenteeism, which have their own set of negative consequences for businesses.
An increased risk of obesity has also been associated with sleep deprivation in some studies. This can lead to a vicious cycle: Increased weight leads to increased risk of sleep apnea, which causes a lack of effective sleep, which may lead to increased weight gain.
For employers, the number of hours worked by employees and their scheduled hours affect the ability to get enough sleep.
If an employee works long hours, sleep may be sacrificed in order to fulfill responsibilities outside of work. And employment during night hours interferes with the body’s natural sleep clock.
Employers may see increased errors, increased health care and worker compensation costs and even loss of employees to death, disability or to jobs with better schedules.
A number of people or a community may be harmed by motor vehicle accidents, industrial accidents and medical errors made by a sleep-deprived employee.
Guarding the time to relax and sleep is imperative to maintaining a healthy and safe workforce.
<To guard against sleep deprivation, suggestions for companies include:
<At least 10 hours of consecutive time away from work to allow for seven to eight hours of sleep.
<Frequent, brief rest breaks during demanding work tasks.
<Five eight-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts per week generally are well-tolerated with one or two rest days following a week of these shifts.
<Review accidents and injuries and determine if fatigue contributed to the root cause.
ADVICE FOR WORKERS
For individuals, standard and effective recommendations for better sleep include:
<Scheduling enough time to sleep.
<Avoidance of alcohol and caffeine prior to sleeping.
<Sleep in a cool, dark and quiet place.
If these tactics fail to aid sleep, talk to your personal health care provider because larger forces may be the cause.
Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing is interrupted while sleeping and can occur hundreds of times in one night.
Inadequate intake of oxygen means the brain and other organs are not getting enough oxygen. Symptoms commonly associated with sleep apnea are loud snoring, waking up with a gasping or choking sensation, daytime sleepiness or low energy, morning headaches, restless sleep, recurrent awakenings and sleepiness while driving.
Studies show a high correlation of sleep apnea to increased neck size, a body mass index greater than 35 (in men), uncontrolled blood pressure and a history of diabetes or thyroid disease.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recommends the sleep study evaluation for at-risk drivers pursuing a U.S. Department of Transportation medical certificate.
A sleep study, done at home or in a medical facility, determines if a person has sleep apnea. If there is a resulting diagnosis of sleep apnea, treatment most commonly includes the nightly use of a continuous positive air pressure machine, which pushes air into the respiratory passages. The consistent airflow reduces the daytime sleepiness.
Certain companies and industries (such as those requiring a commercial driver’s license) compel those diagnosed with sleep apnea to provide the data from their CPAP to ensure a safe environment is maintained.
Sleep is as fundamental as eating and breathing. For health and safety, aim for at least seven hours of sleep every night.
Dr. Katherine Southall is board certified in internal medicine and has practiced occupational medicine for 20 years. She practices at HealthWorks at Lehigh Valley Health Network – with four offices dedicated solely to occupational health – where she provides treatment and health care needs for workers and companies. She can be reached at 610-866-9675.