Harvard Business Review released an interesting piece recently on sleep and the role it plays on fatigue in the workplace. While the blog written by Alan Dickenson, Professor of labour and employment relations at Penn State University, largely focusses on corporate America, it is clear many of the issues faced in the United States are consistent with the key concerns Australia experiences within some of our primary industries. There are remarkably similar sleep-related attitudes and behaviours abroad.
The recurring themes throughout Dickenson’s article are that workers are increasingly under pressure to work longer hours, face irregular work schedules, lack time for sufficient rest and a poor workplace or industry culture. Our mining, oil and gas and construction sectors face the same challenges. Many of these perceived issues link back to the organisational culture and “the way things are done around here”.
From our research in TMS Consulting, it is clear that demands from our increasingly busy lifestyle along with the common work-related factors mentioned by Dickenson (i.e. non-standard work schedules, shift work, and the holding of multiple jobs) are significantly contributing to sleep deprivation issues for our workforce. Insufficient sleep has a significant impact on worker performance and increases the safety risk due to symptoms such as lapses in attention, micro-sleeps, reduced reaction time, irritability and reduced concentration to name a few. All of these can have dire consequences in any industry especially ones including heavy machinery, mobile workforces and extended roster cycles. It is imperative that these organisations strive to proactively mitigate the fatigue risks associated with work-related factors that contribute to sleep debt (i.e shift work, extended rosters). This cannot be achieved without also encouraging a mindset in the workforce that fosters sleep as a vital component in the bigger picture of achieving organisational success.
Lack of sleep and fatigue have proven to be directly related to workplace accidents through the impact that it has on performance impairment. Several studies have compared these impairments to those of alcohol intoxication. In fact, Dawson and Reid discovered that after approximately 17 hours of wakefulness, cognitive performance was equivalent with a 0.05% blood alcohol concentration. In terms of extended roster cycles seen in many FIFO arrangements, studies observed significant objective fatigue impairments even in shifts limited to day shifts, whereby performance was impaired to a level equivalent to 0.05% BAC after eight consecutive day shifts.2 This again demonstrates the importance of gaining adequate sleep to reduce fatigue in the process of eliminating workplace incidents. Some industries are yet to recognise the importance of developing practices that support sufficient sleep, and in doing so are dismissing the essential element for fortifying fatigue management – a supportive workplace culture.
In research conducted by TMS key findings reinforce the general consensus that sleep is shorter and of poorer quality onsite compared to off site. Extended working hours, early morning wake times and poor sleep hygiene are primary contributors of impaired sleep quality and duration; all of this leading to an increase in worker fatigue levels.
There appears to be gradual improvement across all industries within Australia regarding attitudes towards fatigue, however the “harden up” culture is still present and needs to be addressed through employee education, positive example-setting by managers and perhaps even a full review of organisation-wide fatigue culture and systems.
So what can your organisation do to achieve optimal fatigue management and a healthy sleep culture in the workplace? TMS recommends focusing on the entire system of your workplace in relation to fatigue, looking at new ways to engage your workforce, and investing in improving workplace culture. The primary recommendations are:
- Sleep, fatigue and risk awareness training
- Implementing hazard observation
- Safety climate assessments
- Worker feedback and communication channels
- Fatigue Management Plan audits
- Take a human factors approach
- Fatigue Risk Assessments
- Coaching rather than compliance
- Shift scheduling review
- Targets and rewards rather than problems and punitive
- Assigning specific fatigue KPI’s
- Field and team based coaching
- Designating accountabilities and responsibilities
- Cultural change programs
Whether you are working in a corporate-style environment like the ones mention by Dickenson or you are working in heavy and high risk industries, there is no doubt that sleep is a vital ingredient to ensure workplace safety and enhanced productivity. What we must now overcome, however, is the “harden up” and “sleep is for sissies” attitudes plaguing industries both in Australia, and evidently, the United States.
- Williamson, A., Lombardi, D.A., Folkard, S., Stutts, Courtney, T. K. & Connor, J. L. (2011). The link between fatigue and safety. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 43, pp. 489-515.
- Dawson, D., & Reid, K. (1997). Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature, 388(6639), 235