Increase Alertness

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The National Sleep Foundation’s “2002 Sleep in America Poll” found that as many as 47 million adults didn’t get enough sleep to be fully alert the next day. Sleep deprivation was greatest among shiftworkers, who averaged only 6.5 hours of sleep during weekdays, compared to 6.8 hours for regular day-shift workers and 6.9 hours for all respondents. Shiftworkers also were more likely to have experienced symptoms of insomnia.

As the manager of a 24/7 operation, you cannot afford to let sleepiness affect the safety or performance of your workforce. You may not be able to control what your employees do when they are away from work, but there are still a number of things you can do to help. Five of the most significant steps you can take are:

  1. Replace ineffective schedules.
  2. Reduce excessive overtime.
  3. Adopt policies the promote alerness.
  4. Educate workers about sleep.
  5. Improve the work environment.

This article serves as an introduction to the subject by providing an overview of each strategy.

This article serves as an introduction to the subject by providing an overview of each strategy.

Replace Ineffective Schedules

If your shift schedule has been in place for a long time, it may not be obvious that it is causing problems for the workforce. Over time, employees will adapt to the schedule and adjust their lives around it. And, since most people are unaware of their sleepiness or think it is “normal,” you won’t hear many complaints.

So how do you know if the schedule is creating sleep problems for your workers? A couple of indicators are listed below. Since other factors will affect these measures, it is always best to look at more than one indicator.

  • Ask employees to record their hours of sleep for a week or so. If the daily averages are below 6.5 hours, you could have a problem. The normal requirement is 8 hours a day, despite claims of many that they only need 7 hours or less.
  • Ask your employees how often they notice having problems with safety or performance due to sleepiness. Our survey database shows an average of 20% having problems one or more times a week.
  • Examine the accident rates over time and across different shifts. Has the rate increased or does one shift stand out from the others? Although sleepiness plays a major role in accidents, it is rarely cited as a reason.
  • Analyze productivity levels. Unless you have data from a period in which you operated under a different schedule to compare with, changes over time probably won’t tell you much. If you can compare productivity by shift, however, you may see a pattern emerge.

Reduce Excessive Overtime

Although overtime is a great way to manage variable workloads, it can get out of hand and rob your employees of valuable sleep time. A general rule of thumb is that when overtime levels exceed 20% of the total labor hours, employees are more likely to experience problems with sleepiness and fatigue.

Even at lower levels, overtime can cause problems. If employees are working two consecutive shifts to fill in for absentees, sleep time will be compromised. If employees are regularly working an extra shift each week, the number of days off will be reduced as well as their essential “sleep recovery” time.

Adopt Policies that Promote Alertness

Here are several examples of policies that can help to promote alertness:

  • Naps. Employees are allowed to take “controlled naps” as opposed to the random, uncontrolled naps found in many workplaces.2 Policy restrictions may include limits on the time and frequency of the naps, approval procedures, location, and a replacement while away from duty.
  • Radios. Radios are allowed in the work areas. The irregular beat of music is an instant pick-me-up that can help to reduce drowsiness.
  • Task timing. Workers are allowed to control the sequence of the work being done, so they can perform the most tedious or boring tasks at the beginning of the shift when they are most alert.4 Another policy allows the allocation of the more physical tasks to the night shift to help those workers stay awake.
  • Educate Workers about Sleep

    One of the best ways to promote alertness is to educate your employees about all aspects of sleep. You could cover subjects such as sleep hygiene, sleep debt, sleep problems, and adapting to shiftwork. One example of the types of topics to address is shown in the article entitled “Alertness Tips for Workers.”

    If you plan to offer recommendations on adapting to shiftwork, make sure they are relevant to your particular setting. People tend to ignore general guidelines such as “Always get eight hours of sleep.” You will get much better acceptance of specific guidelines, such as a sample schedule of work and sleep times for each shift.

    Improve the Work Environment

    Are your facilities contributing to the sleepiness of your workforce? Maybe it’s time to examine your work areas. Some of the factors to review are:

    • Lighting. Michael Terman of Columbia University , a specialist in light therapy, says normal room light rarely exceeds 500-600 lux (compared with 800 lux outdoors at the first glimmer of dawn).5 You need at least 1,000 lux to get the full biological benefits of light.
    • Aroma. Some Japanese office complexes have tried pumping the aroma of citrus or spearmint through their ventilation systems to increase alertness.6 You may not want to go that far, but you should make sure there are no aromas causing drowsiness.
    • Sound. When you walk through your plant, what kind of sounds do you hear? Irregular or variable sounds tend to increase alertness. Constant, low-level humming noises tend to lull you to sleep.
    • Temperature and ventilation. Cool, dry air, especially on the face, helps to keep people awake. Studies have shown that mental performance can be reduced by 30% at slightly elevated room temperatures.7 If your building is too warm, install a fan, open windows, or encourage workers to take a walk outside during their breaks.
    • Rest areas. Do you have areas set aside for your people to rest or take a nap? Not a meeting or lunchroom with vending machines, but a nice, quiet area with low lights and maybe cots to stretch out on.
    • Exercise areas. Sleep-deprivation studies have shown that physical activity is one of the most effective ways to combat sleepiness.8 If the budget permits, set up a room with exercise equipment (e.g., treadmills) to encourage exercise during breaks.

    Hopefully, this overview has inspired you to become more involved in promoting the alertness of your workers. Remember, you can make a difference!

    Sources:

    1. National Sleep Foundation, “2002 Sleep in America Poll,” April 2, 2002 .
    2. “Enhance Workplace Alertness with Napping,” Alert@Work.com, Jan. 1999
    3. Dr. Bob Arnot, “Alter Your Biology to Create Sizzling Mental Energy,” in USA Weekend, January 16, 2000 .
    4. National Sleep Foundation, “Sleep Strategies for Shift Workers”, revised Oct 1999.
    5. Dr. Bob Arnot, “Alter Your Biology to Create Sizzling Mental Energy,” in USA Weekend, January 16, 2000 .
    6. Marie Wallace, “Accelerate Learning in a Jiff with a Sniff,” Law Library Resource Xchange, LLC, Mar. 1, 2000 .
    7. Dr. Bob Arnot, “Alter Your Biology to Create Sizzling Mental Energy,” in USA Weekend, January 16, 2000 .
    8. Rosekind, Gander , Gregory, et al, “Managing Fatigue in Operational Settings 1: Physiological Considerations and Countermeasures,” Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 21, Winter, 1996.