Work and sleep: how are we doing?

Last week I taught a 90-minute session on sleep and fatigue at the VPP Region X Conference held in Portland. The Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) is designed to recognize and promote effective safety and health management. VPP participants are a select group of facilities that have designed and implemented outstanding health and safety programs. The class that I taught, adapted slightly after each presentation, continues to be popular at regional occupational safety and health conferences, both in Oregon and Washington. Last week’s class, like most I have taught recently, was full with eighty or so attendees. And although many of those registered frequently work night shift, I was pleased I didn’t put any to sleep. It is interesting and concerning, however, the regular feedback I get from so many concerning their sleep practices. Some common comments I hear as I share my talk include:

  • As they become educated about the importance of sleep, including how much we are learning now about the impact of sleep deficiency on health, they recognize how increasingly difficult it is to get enough sleep.
  • Many have an hour or more of a commute prior to and after working 10-12 hour work shifts, leaving little time in the day for family, exercise or sleep. In previous classes I have had attendees share stories of both near miss car accidents and the real thing after working a shift like this.
  • Some companies are putting increasing demands on both required and optional overtime. Even when workers know they are working too many hours, some of those in the position of opting for more hours have a hard time turning down the extra pay.
  • Many night shift workers expressed that while they know they should try to keep regular schedules on days off, life with family and friends makes it too difficult.
  • A few reported that when they have presented management leadership with alternatives for rescheduling of night or swing shifts, or creating options for reducing alternating shifts, in the end no changes were seriously considered.

It is rather interesting to look at our increased work hour demands in light of conversations in the UK calling for four-day work weeks, and work hour reductions to a total of 35 hours per week. The 4 Day Week campaign detailed the case for a shorter working week in a report published in February, claiming such a schedule could improve health and well-being, as well as environmental sustainability and gender equality.

It is refreshing to know about organizations that have seriously examined the science of sleep, and/or consulted with all levels of employees in their workforce, in a serious and intentional effort to improve operations. While many industries may continue to need to staff twenty-four hour operations, there are often some strategies that can act as a temporary fix, although we shouldn’t deceive ourselves that rotating human bodies between shifts affecting sleep cycles can’t be fully enhanced without changing the shifts. Some of the things that we see organizations doing to better address sleep, shift work and health include:

  • Changing shift start and end times to better meet circadian ideals or needs.
  • Increasing time periods involving a specific shift and avoiding (for example, weekly) shift rotations.
  • Considering night and swing shift preferences for placement, with pay differential, when it is an option or of employee interest.
  • Enhancing mental wellness, diet, exercise and mindfulness activities and programs, including on-the-job.
  • Improving overall safety culture and employee engagement.
  • Instituting napping policies and tips.
  • Educating on sleep and other health topics.

What we do know, and seem to increasingly learn more about, is the importance of sleep and avoiding disruptions to our circadian rhythms. Here at OccHealthSci I appreciate working with a smart group of sleep researchers and scientists as we continue to share both what we know and how organizations are moving ahead to improve sleep and health of their workforce.

Resources about sleep and circadian rhythm:
Sleep research at OccHealthSci
OccHealthSci Resource Directory Topic > Sleep and Shiftwork

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