Sleep deprivation runs rampant

Everyone is sleepy, but your firm may be making it worse

We live in a time-starved and sleep-deprived society. People face an overwhelming number of demands on personal and professional time, and, to deal with it, sacrifice that which is believed to be of little value — sleep. As a result, fatigue, absenteeism and poor performance are now as common among daytime employees as they are with shift workers and late-night staff. For HR professionals, it makes sense to provide assistance to nine-to-five employees to help them overcome fatigue and stay alert on the job.

The question is: How to achieve optimum alertness to ensure safety and productivity?

For starters, sleepiness in the workplace needs to be accepted as a fact of life. Many managers abdicate responsibility by ignoring sleepiness when they see it. This sets the stage for accidents and injuries. Other managers go to the other extreme by setting strict no-sleeping-on-the-job policies. What that policy encourages, however, is hiding. Employees know they cannot overcome their need for sleep so they find ways to get some sleep in spite of the policy.

Causes for sleepy days

Shift workers usually do not get enough sleep during the day because they find it difficult to sleep in the daylight. Humans are designed to sleep at night and everyone who works at night will experience a period of extreme sleepiness at some point.

But day workers also forego sleep because of the various demands on their time, and are subject to a natural physiology which causes many to experience sleepiness in the afternoon (for instance after lunch, when many would really love to have a nap). Ignoring after-lunch fatigue can be perilous; it’s no co-incidence that traffic-accident statistics spike in the afternoon.

Reduce danger, improve productivity

Employers have a reasonable expectation that staff will be fit and able to work. In theory, the reasons for sleepiness are not the employer’s concern. In reality, however, an HR manager must ensure that there are options available to deal with what will be an unproductive employee.

The need for an HR manager to get a handle on sleepiness is dependent on the extent to which the company is at risk. Sleepiness in employees at transportation companies, power plants and hospitals carries high potential risks for employees, clients and the public. Financial institutions, data management companies and retail establishments face lower risk, but there are costs in terms of increased use of benefits and lost productivity.

Sleepiness will occur – accept it, address it

Sleepiness may be a systemic problem in the organization. For instance, is excessive overtime required or are workloads excessive and deadlines merciless? Does the company require early morning starts? Are there inherent, ongoing job stressors? If these situations can’t be avoided, it is even more important to think about how the company will manage its sleepy employees.

The most important factor in managing sleepy employees is creating a culture that accepts that sleepiness will occur and addresses the situation. HR managers need to know about all instances of sleepiness and make all employees feel safe about reporting their own sleepiness or that of others. HR managers need to view reports about sleepiness as opportunities to identify the most susceptible individuals and the times of the day or night when alertness-promoting efforts should be implemented. Employees need to be educated about the dangers of sleepiness and encouraged to use fatigue-busting strategies to stay alert.

Consider allowing frequent breaks, even just 10 minutes at a time, to divert employees’ energy and attention away from the task at hand. Ensure that employees always have access to water, juice, coffee and tea.

For some people, on some occasions, organizational strategies will not be enough — they will simply require a nap, which is one of the most effective strategies to promote alertness and improve productivity. And yet, HR professionals maintain their stance against sleeping on the job. HR needs to see its way past this point of view, develop a controlled napping policy and let employees nap at their discretion. Organizations that have gone this route find the policy generally does not get abused and there is a payoff in improved employee morale and well-being.

When employees are chronically fatigued and anti-sleepiness measures aren’t helping, it’s time to put the performance management system into play. Employees can be chronically fatigued for many reasons including illness, personal stressors or poor choices about sleep. Once the source of the fatigue is known, the employee can be directed to the appropriate resources.

Above all, the situation should not be ignored and HR managers should try not to fall back on drastic options such as dismissal. Chronically sleepy employees are just like any other employee with a dependency or another issue that is getting in the way of their productivity.

Carolyn Schur is president of Saskatoon-based [email protected] Human Resource Services, www.alertatwork.com. She can be reached at (306) 975-1165 or [email protected].

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