Sleeping on the job…? The new WHS risk facing us all

A recent study1 involving more than 8,800 employees shows that 39 per cent of us are sleeping six hours or less a night and are more stressed, have less energy and are working longer hours than those employees who get the recommended 7 – 9 hours a night.

The concept that workloads and work-related stress are keeping us awake at night probably isn’t far from the truth. Stress, both at work and at home, alcohol, lack of exercise and of course technology and screens are all impacting negatively on our day to day wellbeing.

Health experts recommend 7 – 9 hours’ sleep a night for optimal wellbeing and performance, but it would seem not many of us are reaching that target. Workers sleeping less than 6 hours a night recorded higher stress levels, additional work hours, less energy and almost 20 per cent difference in their work life balance compared to employees who get the recommended amount. It seems people who rest well, work well.

These findings show the less sleep you get, the more prone you are to be working additional hours with close to 30 per cent working 9 + hours extra a week. These people also take shorter lunch breaks and have considerably less energy during the workday.

This is even more concerning in an industry that using large machinery, power tools and other higher-risk items on a daily basis. Being ‘on the tools’ when a person is overtired can only lead to poor concentration, poor decision-making and potentially poor safety outcomes.

A recently released report by the Federal Government2 also found four in every ten Australians are not getting the sleep they need. The direct financial cost of this inadequate sleep is currently estimated to be $26.2 billion annually.

Trent Zimmerman MP, said in the report “If health and wellbeing costs are considered, the cost rises to $66.3 billion annually. Of even greater concern, in 2016-17 inadequate sleep was estimated to contribute to 3017 deaths in Australia.”

And it’s not just work that’s keeping us awake… insufficient sleep can be caused by a range of lifestyle pressures including shift changes, and the increased use of the internet and electronic media. Shift work, especially when it involves night shift, can be extremely disruptive to sleep patterns, and in the longer term, this disrupted sleep can have serious health impacts. Shift work has been linked to the increased risk of obesity, sleep disorders, mental health conditions, and cancer.

The overuse of smartphones and our growing love affair with the internet is also proving to have a massive impact on our sleep patterns. People are increasingly watching streaming services, internet gaming, and using social media late at night, potentially at the expense of sleep. This is also alarmingly starting to affect children, who are having their sleep continually disrupted by their smartphones or other devices.

If you’re an employer, or PCBU, responsible for the safety and wellbeing of workers, what can be done to help people get better sleep and more of it??

Your culture onsite has a significant effect on your team’s ability to sleep. Establish work-time limits and reduce the long hours your employees work where possible. Encourage workers to down tools, take a walk, remove themselves from their workspace and make lunch breaks compulsory for some much-needed downtime. It always helps to lead by example, too. Go easy on the alcohol during the week, bring a healthy lunch to work, cut back on the coffees. Small changes during the day help to achieve that rested state when it’s time for lights out.

It’s worth noting a recent study on wellbeing found that rude or offensive co-workers didn’t just cause stress at work, their behaviour can carry across into downtime at home and lead to anxiety and depression. This ‘spill over’ effect can cause insomnia and stress, even after the workday is well behind you.

With so many people not getting enough quality sleep, and then bringing the effects of that lack of sleep to work, it’s vital that employers look to managing this issue as part of their standard approach to safety in the workplace. Have the conversations about lifestyle choices, monitor behaviours, give workers breaks to refuel and refocus, and keep stress to a minimum. The benefits will be reaped by all, not only at work but 24-7.



2 Bedtime Reading, Inquiry into Sleep Health Awareness in Australia

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