How Lack of Sleep Could Affect Your Safety at Work

Heading into work in the morning on just a few hours of sleep is never fun. You worry that it could cause you to make mistakes which might reflect poorly on your job performance, and maybe catch the unwanted attention of your supervisor.

But in certain fields, lack of sleep can do far worse harm, affecting your safety and that of others.

Sleep-Deprived Workers Have Caused Catastrophes

There are many well-documented cases of workplace accidents caused at least in part by sleep deprivation, as discussed in Catastrophes, Sleep, and Public Policy: Consensus Report.

Let’s consider the most famous incident in question. As the paper explains, “Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the nuclear plant catastrophe at Chernobyl is officially acknowledged to have begun at 1:23 a.m. as the result of human error (39,40).”

Here are some other infamous catastrophes and near-catastrophes in which sleep deprivation was involved:

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  • The destruction of the Challenger Space Shuttle
  • The near overload of the Davis-Besse reactor at Oak Harbor, Ohio in 1985
  • A temporary loss of control of the Rancho Seco nuclear reactor near Sacramento, also in 1985
  • A mistake which almost resulted in the Columbia Space Shuttle’s destruction in 1986
  • The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island

The destruction of Challenger led many people to assert that it was too dangerous to send human beings into space. But perhaps what they should have been fixated on is how dangerous it is to allow workers who are sleep deprived to put other people’s lives in danger.

Of course, being sleep-deprived puts your life in danger as well, as reported by the National Sleep Foundation, which explains, “And tragically, in one Swedish study of nearly 50,000 people, those with sleep problems were nearly twice as likely to die in a work-related accident.”

That is quite a striking statistic, and it proves that the life-threatening dangers posed by workplace fatigue are widespread in nature.

What Leads to Sleep Deprivation in the Workplace?

9 to 5 worker

There are many different reasons why sleep deprivation is common in workplaces in a variety of sectors.

  • Early mornings: While we call standard work hours “9-5,” it is not as if we wake up at 9 for our jobs. Even if you live very close to your workplace and can walk there in a matter of minutes, you probably get up at least half an hour before that. If you have a more typical commute, there’s a good chance that you get up at six or seven in the morning. A lot of people simply will never function at their best getting up this early, even if they are getting plenty of sleep at night.
  • Regular long shifts: Many employees work extended shifts which have them in the office well past “standard” 9-5 hours. These lengthy shifts can easily increase fatigue, making sleep deprivation-related errors even worse.
  • Overnight and unusual hours: Shift workers who have nighttime or (worse) rotating shifts may struggle to stay awake on the job. The more shift hours move around, the harder it is for the body to continue adapting.
  • Crunch time: Another increasingly common workplace plight is what is known in the videogame industry as “crunch time.” Crunch time is not a phenomenon which is confined strictly to that industry, either. It is not uncommon during crunch time to work 100-hour weeks. This is absolutely terrible for general health and obviously eats into sleep hours. Sometimes employees cannot even leave the office, and are forced to sleep under their desks.
  • Poor employee habits and choices: Another reason for workplace exhaustion has less to do directly with employer schedules and policies, and that is a simple choice that people often make to stay up later than they should. But this too is indirectly tied to work hours. Even a 9-5 job can leave a person with only a few hours of free time per day. That isn’t a lot of time to fill a life with joy and meaning. It is no wonder many sacrifice sleep to try and get it.

What Should Be Done About Workplace Fatigue?

businessman asleep at work

It is plain to see that problems with workplace fatigue largely originate with employers. Yes, employees sometimes make irresponsible choices. But workweeks of 40 hours and up and long commutes are always going to result in a significant number of sleep-deprived workers.

To eliminate these problems, wide-scale social and political change are going to be necessary. Alas, there is nothing you can do about that.

Sadly, if your employer wants you to work 60, 80, or 100 hours, you are going to do it or lose your job.

If it is demanded you work a rotating shift, your employer is going to expect you to follow through, and so on.

If everyone else shows up to work at 9 in the morning, your employer probably will not make an exception and let you start work at 10 am instead.

The hardest part is that most employers feel perfectly justified with these policies. If you do not enjoy your 80-hour workweeks or function at your best during them, their attitude is that such is your fault, not theirs.

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But here is the thing—it isn’t just your health and safety which could be in danger. Depending on your job, you might endanger others with workplace fatigue.

That is something you have to be responsible for, regardless of your employer’s attitude.

How To Avoid Sleep Deprivation at Work

So how do you deal with an impossible situation? Here are some ideas.

neon sign with the word "change"

1. Know your limits and respect them, however scary that is.

Some peoples’ bodies and brains seem better able to function with less than optimal sleep.

That being said, no one can go on performing well forever with sleep deprivation.

Regardless of where your limits are, it is vital that you learn to recognize them and know when a lack of sleep might start impacting your work performance.

If your current job pushes you past those limits on a regular basis, endangering your well-being and/or that of others, that is a problem.

You basically have two choices at that point:

1-Find a way to get more sleep (see below)

Or …

2-Find a different job.

The latter, of course, is not a happy prospect, especially if you have no idea where you could get another job.

But compromising safety at work simply is not worth it.

Again, think about the disasters which could have been averted throughout history if sleep-deprived workers had been replaced by those who were able to perform their jobs properly. Chernobyl might never have happened.

2. If your employer is reasonable, negotiate.

While many employers will not negotiate, some will. Here are some ways you might be able to reduce problems associated with sleep deprivation at work if your employer is reasonable and flexible:

  • Ask to come in and leave later. While many employers do not give their employees options as to when they come and go, some are quite liberal about it and allow you to show up and clock out whenever you want, so long as the job gets done and you are performing the appropriate number of work hours each week.
  • Ask to move your shifts. If the shifts you have are causing problems for you, ask if it is possible to change them. It may be possible to switch them around with other workers’ shifts. This can be a good solution if you have a job which involves night shifts or rotating shifts. It also may be a good option if you want to avoid early morning shifts that other people are completely fine with taking.
  • Ask to reduce your hours. If you would be okay scaling back your hours, see if your employer is open to allowing you to work part-time. In careers with flexible shifts, this may be possible.
  • Ask to work from home. If your job is mainly on the computer, and you do much of your work independently already, it might be possible to continue to do your job from home instead of coming into the office each day. This can remove your commute time, lunch hour, and other time sinks each day.

Again, many employers will not even be open to this discussion. But if yours is, it’s well worth trying to make some shift or commute changes before you consider leaving your job or making other drastic changes to your lifestyle.

3. Have a strict sleep routine.

Assuming you work identical shifts every day or night, you should create an identical routine in terms of your off hours and sleep schedule as well.

If you wake up and go to bed at different times each day, your body will be constantly struggling to adjust.

But if you have a regular routine, your body knows what to expect, which should keep your circadian rhythms regular, helping you to fall asleep rapidly each night or day.

This also means that you need to be strict with yourself in terms of going to bed on time, and not staying up late to do other things, however much you might want to.

What if you work rotating or random shifts? Obviously, this limits your capacity to keep a regular routine. But you can still put a cap on how many hours you let yourself stay up, and make sure that you get a certain minimum number of hours of daily or nightly rest.

You also can still create a helpful bedtime habit. If, for example, you find that reading a book for 20 minutes before bedtime helps you fall asleep fast, make that a routine, even if the hours change depending on your shifts.

This will help to clear your mind and tell your body and mind that it is time for rest. You will learn to associate that regular reading with entering a sleepy, relaxed state. This should automatically over time make it easier to fall asleep.

4. Improve your sleep hygiene.

How is your sleep hygiene? If you do not know what sleep hygiene is, it refers to things like:

  • How comfortable your room is (supportive mattress, not too noisy, not too bright, comfortable pillow, etc.).
  • Keeping a regular sleep schedule, as discussed.
  • Avoiding bad habits like eating late at night, drinking caffeine in the evening or at night, or smoking before you go to bed.
  • Having a routine to relax before bed (as we also discussed).
  • Avoiding doing other activities in your bed that are not related to sleep (i.e. watching television or reading).

There are no hard rules with regards to sleep hygiene. Everybody is different. One person may sleep well in a silent room, while another may sleep better with white noise.

One person may need to avoid ever using their bed for non-sleep activities, while another could be totally unaffected by it.

Some people are kept awake by drinking a cup of coffee at five in the afternoon, but others can drink a cup at ten o clock’ at night and fall right asleep.

You will need to keep track of your own habits and figure out what you need to do to sleep.

5. Relocate if you can’t reduce your commute time any other way.

Are you driving 1-2 hours every day to and from work—or even more than that? This is very common in metropolitan regions. Sometimes people even commute from one city to another, or from one state to the next.

This type of commute drains a huge amount of time you could be doing other things. This in turn tends to put a dent in the amount of time you are willing to spend sleeping.

If you do not foresee yourself switching jobs anytime soon, and you are currently stuck with this type of commute, you should strongly think about moving closer to your workplace.

This will of course be a hassle in terms of time and money, but it will save you both over the long term (all that gasoline eats into the money you are taking home).

Plus, just do the math. If you commute two hours a day five days a week, over the course of a year, that is 520 hours you are stuck in traffic instead of living your life. That is nearly three solid weeks of your life each year. Just think of all you could do when you have that time back.

6. Weigh your priorities in life.

Even with a job with fairly reasonable hours and a short commute, you are going to have pretty restricted hours to see to other things in your life.

The more you have going on in your life outside of your work hours, the harder it’s going to be to keep up with those obligations and get enough sleep.

So it is worth thinking long and hard about your current set of commitments as well as what is most important to you in your life.

If you are able to scale back on some unnecessary commitments and keep only those which really matter to you, you probably can reduce stress in your life and also get more sleep.

7. Take a healthy herbal supplement to fall asleep faster.

If you are routinely sleep-deprived, you might be tempted to fall back on over-the-counter medications to try and get more sleep during your busy work week.

But there are a couple of reasons that this is not an ideal solution.

The first is that these medications may have unhealthy long-term side effects. There are even concerns that using them too often could increase your chances of developing dementia.

The second reason why OTC sleep medications are not ideal for reducing workplace fatigue is that they may actually end up causing it.

Even though they may help you to get more sleep at night, they are notorious for causing “hangovers” the following day.

Ironically, this can leave you feeling very much as if you did lose out on sleep, and can make you prone to errors like those you would make if you were actually sleep-deprived.

An alternative to over-the-counter sleep medications which is healthier and which can help you to avoid those unwanted side effects is an herbal sleep supplement.

Look for ingredients like passionflower, valerian and magnesium. These research-backed ingredients can help support a healthy sleep cycle.

Conclusion: Going to Work Sleep-Deprived Just Isn’t Worth It

When you yawn in the morning, glare at the clock, and realize you have only had five hours of sleep, it is easy to tell yourself, “I’ll just power through it.”

But there are many jobs where this can directly jeopardize your life or that of other people.

Many workplace accidents large and small could have been avoided if workers had not showed up sleep-deprived.

It is a hard reality to contend with if your employer is not open to reasonable negotiation about your hours. But if that is the case, it is up to you to protect yourself, your co-workers, and the public by making the right decisions.

That means finding a way to get enough sleep. In some cases, that could entail a drastic move, like finding a different job.

But hopefully, in most cases, some simple adjustments to sleep hygiene and routine with the addition of an herbal sleep supplement will be enough to catch the zzzzzz’s you need to function on the job.