The risks of falling asleep on the job

Sleep deprivation can result in impaired judgment, lower productivity and a higher likelihood of accidents, writes Dr Tony Massey. So what are the steps employers can take to ensure their employees are getting sufficient rest each night? 

When Continental Connection flight 3407 fell out of the sky during its February 2009 approach to New York state’s Buffalo airport, experts initially believed a build up of ice on the wings had been responsible. However, further investigation by America’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) discovered pilot error had been the primary culprit.

A result of poor judgment, it was partly attributed to pilot fatigue and a lack of sleep. The final NTSB report states that both the captain and first officer “were likely experiencing some degree of fatigue at the time of the accident”. Lack of sleep certainly played a role in a crash that killed 50 people and that will potentially cost the airline – and its insurance company – millions of dollars in restitution.

A lack of adequate sleep and fatigue were also at least partly responsible for other high-profile workplace accidents, including the Challenger space shuttle tragedy, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

But sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality, and the resulting fatigue, can have serious consequences in any workplace by undermining employee productivity and workplace efficiency – and can even contribute to disasters.

Although research into sleep deprivation and its consequences is still a developing science, line managers, HR and OH practitioners need to understand how it can contribute to poor health, inefficiency and accidents in the workplace in order to prevent them.

Sleeplessness and work: how serious of a problem is it?

The results of research released in April 2012 by Vielife, a provider of health and wellness solutions, into sleep deprivation and its consequences are eye opening. The study of more than 40,000 European-domiciled workers indicates that 50% of those surveyed sleep seven hours or fewer a night. Some 5% sleep fewer than five hours, while almost 27% – or around one in four respondents – reported that they were either unrefreshed or exhausted even after sleeping.

quotemarksThose sleeping poorly were more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs, suffer higher rates of depression and feel they have little personal control over their work.”

In total, one-third of all respondents had a “high-risk” sleep profile. Those sleeping poorly were more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs, suffer higher rates of depression and feel they have little personal control over their work. Moreover, they state they have little energy when working, report they are less effective and productive, and have an absenteeism rate 10-times higher than those who report sleeping well.

A summary of the findings paints a picture that should concern business managers: almost one worker in three is sleep deprived or fatigued when on the job. Those experiencing sleep deprivation are less productive than those who sleep well, are more likely to get sick and more likely to experience or cause on-the-job accidents.

Sleep deprivation and fatigue challenges managers to understand the impact sleeplessness can have in the workplace and to develop strategies to help employees who report poor sleep profiles.

The consequences of sleeplessness: too little sleep is like being drunk

A lack of sleep affects people much like drunkenness: too little sleep can result in irritability, poor judgment and decision-making, a breakdown in team playing and a dislocation between the emotional and rational parts of people’s brains.

Research indicates that the judgment of people staying awake for 18 hours is equivalent to a 0.05 alcohol level, the minimum amount of alcohol considered by countries around the world to be too dangerous for driving. When experiencing sleep deprivation, people will make even life-critical decisions based on emotional reactions, rather than on a rational assessment of a given situation. In an emergency scenario, fatigue caused by sleep deprivation can be a killer in the workplace.

At the very least, sleeplessness can contribute to significant financial losses to businesses through inefficiencies and lack of productivity. Yet recent Vielife sleep research indicates that every day in the UK alone, one million people are “sleep drunk” due to a lack of sufficient sleep.

Lost productivity

Research regarding sleep and productivity in the workplace indicates that workers suffering from sleep deprivation are likely to be 6.1% less productive than their fellow employees. University of Manitoba professor Mier Kryger reports that sleeplessness can result in memory and concentration lapses, as well as poor workplace performance.

quotemarksAt the very least, sleeplessness can contribute to significant financial losses to businesses through inefficiencies and lack of productivity.”

This situation is often created as companies strive to increase productivity within a highly competitive global marketplace. As employees are asked to do more with less resources, higher stress levels induced by a modern 24/7 work ethic often exacerbate sleeplessness – which undermines the mission to increase productivity in the first place. Companies and their employees can enter into a vicious cycle: the harder employees work, the more exhausted they can feel due to stress and subsequent sleeplessness. The more exhausted they feel, the less productive they are.

Managers noting a decrease in productivity should gain an insight into their employees’ quality of sleep and the level of sleep deprivation they report. If those levels are high, managers can implement programmes to help employees sleep better, which in turn can lead to an increase in productivity levels.

Decline in general health

Sleep deprivation and the resulting levels of exhaustion also contribute to a general decline in employee health: exhausted workers eat more, exercise less and are more prone to depression. Sleeplessness negatively impacts the human body, right down to the molecular level. The physical impact of sleeplessness can result in a wide range of physical and mental health disorders.

Recent analyses of clinical research conducted in Framingham, Massachusetts, indicate that people experiencing chronic sleep problems are two to three times more likely to have a heart attack than those sleeping well. Another finding is just as stark: the likelihood of stroke is almost triple in men who sleep poorly. Sleep deprivation can also result in high blood pressure, obesity, psychiatric problems including depression and mood disorders, attention deficit disorder and a poor quality of life.

An accident waiting to happen

Most startling of all is the proven fact that sleep deprivation can kill. Those experiencing poor sleep behaviour are more likely to make poor decisions. Depending on the work environment, poor judgments can be fatal.

Let’s go back to the Continental Connection commuter crash discussed at the beginning of this article. The fatigued captain had been trained to follow a standard procedure in the event of a stall warning: advance the throttles and push the nose of the aircraft down to increase airspeed. Instead, the captain pitched the nose of the aircraft up, precipitating a stall at low altitude from which he was unable to recover. Sleep deprivation, at least in part, affected the captain’s ability to think clearly and execute the appropriate action.

quotemarksThose experiencing poor sleep behaviour are more likely to make poor decisions. Depending on the work environment, poor judgments can be fatal.”

There are many other examples of impaired judgment resulting in high levels of workplace accidents due to sleep deprivation. Employees on shift work can experience shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). Workers affected by this disorder have difficulty adjusting to different sleep and wake schedules. It is most prevalent among those working from 10pm to 6am. Findings indicate that SWSD can increase error and accident rates as well as heart disease, gastric and intestinal problems, and social and psychiatric disorders.

In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that fatigue due to sleeplessness costs UK employers between £115 million and £240 million per year in workplace accidents.

What’s more, the HSE points out: “The legal duty is on employers to manage risks from fatigue, irrespective of any individual’s willingness to work extra hours or reference for certain shift patterns for social reasons. Compliance with the Working Time Regulations alone is insufficient to manage the risks of fatigue.”

Companies and their shareholders suffer financially from employee sleeplessness, but are legally tasked with managing the risk due to fatigue in the workplace.

In order to minimise the possibility of workplace accidents and the resulting financial liability, employers are advised to understand the levels of sleep deprivation experienced by their employees and implement health and wellness programmes to help workers achieve more satisfying sleeping behaviour.

Employee sleeplessness: what to do about it?

One of the first things managers might do is ask their employees some simple questions about how they are sleeping. Vielife findings indicate that self-reporting is a statistically valid method of providing a general measure of sleep quality among workers. Should you discover that many employees are self-reporting a poor sleep profile, it is likely that they will also be suffering from poor levels of general health.

To decrease the risk of workplace accidents while increasing overall workplace productivity and profitability, managers can also take the following actions:

  • educate employees about the relationship between sleeplessness and workplace accidents, lack of productivity and personal health;
  • coach employees on sleep hygiene – the simple techniques that can be used to help ensure proper sleep;
  • monitor the number of errors made by individuals experiencing sleeplessness in order to emphasise to the employee how lack of sleep can affect judgment and decision-making;
  • suggest that those employees suspected of suffering from sleep deprivation keep a “sleep log” to identify if they are experiencing a lack of sleep quantity or quality;
  • reschedule or reallocate deadlines or work processes among employees in order to effectively spread workplace stress;
  • avoid encouraging employees to overwork or rewarding long working hours only for the sake of working;
  • decrease the number of nights in a row that employees are assigned to evening or early morning shift work; and
  • ensure proper lighting for those engaged in shift work.

Sleeplessness and resulting fatigue is costing businesses millions and resulting in – in severe cases – the injury and death of workers. Research in the field of sleep deprivation and what to do about it indicates managers should take action now to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences. Sleep deprivation needs to be included as part of any company’s health and safety considerations, as it can result in higher levels of company profitability – but more importantly, it helps protect the health of its workers, their fellow employees and the public.

Dr Tony Massey is chief medical officer of Vielife, a provider of health and wellness solutions.


Baglioni C, Battagliese G, Feige B, Spiegelhalder K, Nissen C, Voderholzer U, Lombardo C, Riemann D (2011). “Insomnia as a predictor of depression: a meta-analytic evaluation of longitudinal epidemiological studies”. J Affect Disord, vol.135, pp.10-19.

Breus M (2006). Chronic sleep deprivation may harm health. WebMD. 

Health and Safety Executive. Human factors: why fatigue is important.

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