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Why good sleep is essential for workplace safety

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How much sleep did you get last night?

For many people the answer is often, 'not enough'.

Up to 4 in every 10 Australian adults are not getting enough quality sleep and just like the causes of poor sleep, the impacts on their health varies from person to person.

With World Sleep Day on Friday 18 March, and this month widely promoted as National Sleep Awareness Month, we explore the impact of sleep and fatigue on workplace wellbeing and remind ourselves why quality shut-eye is vital for everybody’s health.

Tragic cost of poor sleep and fatigue

In financial terms, a 2021 report by Deloitte suggested that the annual combined direct and indirect cost to Australia’s national economy from sleep disorders was $51 billion in 2019–20 (Deloitte Access Economics 2021).

But as Konekt Workcare General Manager, Sam Breust, warns, the danger of not getting enough sleep is more than financial and has grave consequences for hundreds of workers every year.

“Lack of sleep impairs judgment and compromises alertness,” Sam says.

“As a result, fatigue is a major cause of workplace accidents with almost 400 Australians losing their lives each year to industrial or transport accidents directly involving fatigue and countless others incurring injuries or ill-health as a result of fatigue-related workplace incidents.

“The Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) estimated that workers suffering from fatigue were 50% more likely to experience a safety related incident at work.”

Everybody’s at risk

As well as life-threatening physical risks to individual workers, the wider impact on a team and workplace can be far reaching. Including the mental health and wellbeing of workers and their colleagues.

“Most of us have experienced the feeling of having a 'short-fuse' when tired,” Sam explains.

“Regular lack of sleep or long-term sleep deprivation is a major contributor to the development of depressive and mood disorders.

“Fatigue affects the way we interact with other people and the world around us. When we are not well rested our relationships at home and at work suffer, we are more likely to engage in work absenteeism or presenteeism and we are not as productive.

“Sleep deprivation or disorders impact many aspects of health with fatigue being a contributor to many chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.”
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Is your workplace high-risk?

Whether it’s overtime, flexible work patterns or shift work, the 9 to 5 working day can sometimes feel like a myth.

For many industries irregular working times or jobs beyond the hours of daylight are part of the norm, and as many of us know, the disruption this brings to quality sleep is easily felt.

Workers in industries that disrupt normal sleep patterns and rhythms are more likely to suffer from sleep issues and the resulting health implications,” says Sam.

“Ironically, these industries are also ones in which high levels of attention and accuracy are an imperative.

“Shift workers such as police, health workers including doctors, nurses and paramedics, aviation and transport workers and FIFO workers in the mining sector are all at greater risk than workers in other industries of fatigue-related accidents and health issues.“

“Working irregular hours across the day and night also interrupts the bodies’ natural circadian rhythms which requires an individual to remain alert during times when their body is biologically programmed to rest and become less alert and attentive,” Sam adds.

A team effort

Although causes of sleeplessness and fatigue can be different for all of us, when it comes to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace and work practices, the duty of care is a shared responsibility.

“Workers and employers alike, have a combined duty of care to manage fatigue and ensure that it does not impact the ability to perform work tasks safely,” Sam says.

“As individuals, we can all take responsibility for sleep hygiene and prioritise good-quality sleep as a foundation of a healthy and productive life.

“For employers, being aware of the relationship between work patterns and scheduling on sleep-quality, optimising shift structure, encouraging appropriate rest and recovery, and providing a psychologically safe workplace where over-work and workplace-stress are reduced or alleviated, are some of the ways they can support rest and recovery in their teams.”
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Make it part of your 2022 wellbeing strategy

As COVID-19 continues to impact daily life, and a global evaluation of employment (or great resignation in some parts) takes place, organisations are increasing their focus on looking after employees now back in the workplace, or working remotely.

“Sleep is the body’s time to rest, rejuvenate and repair. It’s essential for good mental and physical health and is critical for learning, memory, decision-making, cell-repair and immune-system function. Without good sleep, good health and optimum functioning is not possible,” Sam adds.

“With great sleep being such a pivotal aspect of health, Australian workplaces must ensure that helping their staff to optimise rest and recovery is the foundation upon which their workplace wellbeing strategy is based.”

Simple steps for better sleep

  • Take care of yourself during the day – eat well, hydrate and move
  • Avoid stimulants like nicotine and coffee, exercise and screen use an hour before bed
  • Plan for 7-8 hours of sleep a night if you are an adult
  • Keep a similar bedtime and wake up time each day
  • Create a pre-sleep routine each night - journaling, a glass of warm milk, a shower or listening to calming music often help
  • Learn a relaxation technique such as progressive muscular relaxation or 'box breathing' to help to de-stress and clear your mind
  • Make your sleeping environment dark, quiet and comfortable – consider black out curtains or white noise if you are easily disturbed
  • See your GP if you have sleep disrupting symptoms such as snoring, restless legs or reflux
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Spotlight: FIFO and fatigue

Konekt Workcare General Manager Sam Breust shared details of one example where support was needed to avoid fatigue-related injuries at work.

Konekt was once involved in assisting an employer to manage a FIFO-worker who had started to have a lot of ‘near-miss’ incidents at work.

The line-manager noticed a change in the worker’s behaviour and suspected that a deterioration in mental health might be the cause.

“When Konekt had the opportunity to work with this individual we established that his change in behaviour and alertness at work was being caused by fatigue,” Sam said.

“The worker was worried about his family in South Africa and had been traveling there for his week of R&R after every two-week 'swing'.

“As a result, he had become increasingly fatigued and was not only suffering from a long-term lack of sleep, but also the effects of jetlag and shift-work combined.

“Our team worked with the employer and worker to implement a fatigue-management plan and other strategies to help the individual manage the demands of his work and life.”

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