Health / Training/Incentives

Sleepless In Safetyland

October 19, 2010
KEYWORDS careers / health
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According to ISHN's 23rd annual White Paper reader survey, work hours in the past year have increased for 40 percent of safety and health pros. Half the respondents report higher levels of stress, and 51 percent have heavier workloads.

So what kind of sleep are you getting these days?

More than four out of five of our White Paper respondents are over age 40, the point in the aging process when our sleep becomes much more fragmented than when we're younger. Have you noticed you're more aware of outside noises and your own body aches? Sleep disorders also increase with the aging process - restless leg syndrome, insomnia, and sleep apnea, for instance.

We're not picking on safety and health managers. "America runs on Dunkin'," goes the slogan for Dunkin' Donuts. And much of business runs on too little sleep. Sleep deprivation is a "problem of epidemic proportions," according to an article in the October, 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

But how many companies, their safety departments - or safety pros themselves - are doing anything about it? Let’s study the risks of sleep sacrifices found in almost any workplace.

Frenzied cultures The HBR article goes on to say that "frenzied corporate cultures" put their employees at serious jeopardy of heavy-lidded at-risk behavior all over the world in the name of "sleepless machismo" that is downright dangerous.

It's the "antithesis of intelligent management," bemoans HBR, to push employees "to the brink of self-destruction." Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, says in the piece it's past time for executives to own up to their critical responsibility to take sleeplessness seriously.

But we can't put sleep deficits in the age of over-scheduling all on the shoulders of pushy bosses. We've got to accept some personal responsibility for running at the pace we do.

Baby boomers, who run most businesses and families these days, have turned out to be quite the competitive generation. And in the book, "Tired of Being Tired" (The Berkley Publishing Group, 2001), authors Dr. Jesse Lynn Hanley and Nancy Deville remind us, ""Highly ambitious people love the adrenaline rush." It's the high that seduces. And the lifestyle that has us skipping lunches, swilling Red Bull, and getting by on five or six hours of sleep. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," sang the songwriter Warren Zevon, a boomer favorite.

"I don't want my headstone to be blank," says a running-on-empty business manager in the book, trying to rationalize her addiction to overtime, deadlines, red-eye flights, late dinners, early power breakfasts, midnight emailing, Power Bars and Diet Cokes.

Serious consequences It's not as though we're blind to our at-risk behavior. Barnes & Noble is stocked with titles such as, "No More Sleepless Nights," "Say Goodnight to Insomnia," "The Promise of Sleep," and "Sleep Disorders for Dummies."

How many road warriors pack a few Ambien pills before they hop-scotch across the country, or around the world? Quite a few, considering the sleep medication rings up annual sales of $1.4 billion in the U.S., according to HBR. Sepracor, the pharmaceutical manufacturer of Estorra, which lays claims to be longer-acting, predicts sleeping-pill sales will top the $5 billion mark by 2010, according to an article in Mother Jones magazine.

Still, people everywhere operate heavy and dangerous machinery, guard high-security sites, make critical decisions and attempt to lead teams and meetings and train employees every day while they're exhausted, says the HBR article. That's not all:
 

  • An estimated 80,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel every day.
  • Driver fatigue has accounted for more than 1.35 million auto accidents in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Sleep researchers estimate between 10 and 15 percent of Americans experience serious insomnia (defined as not getting a good night’s sleep for a month or more).
  • In a study of hospital interns who had worked at least 24 straight hours, the odds of stabbing themselves with a needle increased 61 percent, their risk of crashing while driving shot up 168 percent, and their risk of a near-miss multiplied 460 percent.


Off the radar A good sleep policy is smart business strategy, advocates Dr. Czeisler. Of course it would be a sound personal policy as well. But the good doctor's sincerity, warnings and evidence documenting the dire consequences of sleep deprivation will go unheeded by most of us, who are too busy and/or complacent to take note.

The antidote for all this sleep cheating? Dr. Czeisler prescribes corporate sleep policies. Behavioral expectations for getting enough rest along the lines of rules against smoking, drug abuse and sexual harassment. A business ban on red-eye flights. A day off for employees after a long international flight. Annual screening for sleep disorders. Mandatory employee education. And supervisory training and modeling in proper sleep behavior.

You can stop laughing now.

Search the OSHA web site topic index for "sleep deprivation" and the closest you come is "slide presentations." The doctor's remedies would prevent accidents and save lives, no doubt. But when it comes to the risks of shorting ourselves on sleep, most of us are fatalists (You gotta do what you gotta do to make a living and raise a family) or fanatics (I worked 12 hours, finished the project, clinched the deal, closed the sale and still made it to my son's soccer game. So what did you do today?)

Did you know?
 

  • Stay awake longer than 18 consecutive hours and your reaction speed, memory, attention-span and decision-making all start to suffer.


  • Five or six hours of sleep a night for several days in a row has a cumulative effect that magnifies these negatives.


  • Throughout the waking day, humans build up a stronger and stronger drive for sleep.


  • Most people can't get to sleep without some wind-down time, even if they are very tired.


  • There is a transitional phase between when you wake up and the time your brain becomes fully functioning. This is why making key decisions at the crack of dawn is never a good idea.


  • A person who is sleep deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she actually is.


Source: "Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer," Harvard Business Review, October, 2006, Vol. 84, No. 10. Pages 53-59.

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