Sleep and Shift Work: Implications for Worker Health and Safety

Sleep and Shift Work: Implications for Worker Health

Let’s face it; if you’ve worked a job, you know what it’s like to feel tired at work. Simple tasks require more effort. Motivation and focus wain. Productivity declines. Time seems to stretch on like an uninterrupted horizon. 

The quantity and quality of sleep we get affects our performance at work. A 2017 study presented evidence suggesting the U.S. workforce loses roughly 1.23 million working days a year due to insufficient sleep. The study estimated the cost of working days lost to inadequate sleep to be as much as $456 billion (about $1,400 per person in the U.S.) or 2.53% of GDP by 2025. 

Beyond work, sleep is vital to our health and well-being. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that healthy sleep is important in preventing disease, regulating hormones and metabolism, and supporting immune systems and cognitive functions. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine states that healthy sleep requires good quality, appropriate timing, regularity, and the absence of sleep disorders. 

By those standards, healthy sleep can be hard to come by. It’s such an issue that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared insufficient sleep a public health problem. Obtaining healthy sleep can be particularly challenging for those whose jobs require shift work—i.e., working nights, swing, or split shifts. And while a lack of healthy sleep can negatively impact all workers, the effects on worker health and safety are of particular concern for shift workers. 

The Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences recently held a day-long gathering of sleep scientists and industry practitioners focused on sleep and shift work. Our spring symposium: Sleep and Shift Work: Implications for Worker Health and Safety, explored the latest cutting-edge science investigating the relationships between shift work, sleep, and worker health. Occupational health and safety and human resources professionals joined the conversation, providing industry insights from sectors with employees engaged in shift work. 

If you want to learn more about the intersection of sleep science, industry practice, and shift work but missed the June 16 event, you can now watch it on YouTube. 

The video includes presentations by internationally-recognized researchers discussing topics related to sleep, shift work, and health. 

Physician and Harvard Medical School Professor of Sleep Medicine Charles Czeisler discusses the interactions between shift work, sleep, and health, providing an overview of the foundations of the field. 

A panel discussion featuring Dr. Czeisler and leaders from the Portland Police Bureau and Adult Critical Care at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) focuses on emergency service providers and the implications of sleep and shift work. 

OHSU physician and researcher Dr. Joathan S. Emens presents the impact of sleep and shift work on mood, mental health, and psychiatric illness. 

Employees of Portland Fire and Rescue join Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences Assistant Professor Nicole Bowles to discuss the initial results of a community-engaged approach to improving the sleep health of first responders. 

OHSU School of Nursing Assistant Professor Andrew McHill gives a fascinating presentation on the impact of working, eating, and sleeping around the clock on health and well-being. 

And finally, the Interim General Manager at Intercity Transit for the city of Olympia, Washington, Emily Bergkamp, discusses workplace solutions enacted by the city agency to nurture a culture of wellness among transit employees. 

Shift work is a necessity of modernity. We need first responders, doctors and nurses, service providers, technicians, and many other professionals available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure society functions. Thanks to science, the impacts of shift work on employee health, well-being, and productivity are becoming increasingly clear. And as the evidence grows, occupational health practitioners, human resources professionals, and leaders are increasingly adopting evidence-based tools and practices to mitigate the negative impacts of shift work. The Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences is in the vanguard of organizations studying sleep, shift work, and the implications for employee health and well-being and translating the research results into real-world applications that support the workforce in Oregon and beyond. 

Sleep and Shift Work: Implications for Worker Health and Safety is available to watch on YouTube 

Additional tools and resources, including Workplace Sleep Support training, are available on the Institute’s Center for Supportive Leadership website.

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