Why employers need to think smarter about helping workers get good sleep

October 24, 20168:00 am309 views
Why employers need to think smarter about helping workers get good sleep
image: Getting enough sleep affects employees' health and the quality of their work Getty Images: Fuse

Whether it is shift work, technology or social pressures keeping us up at night, the idea of a society that is always “on” is unlikely to go away.

But that does not mean people cannot change how they fit into it — particularly when it comes to getting good sleep, according to Russell Foster, a professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford.

Employees are not necessarily able to make all the decisions regarding the hours they work.

But Professor Foster said people whose work hours fall outside the usual 9:00am to 5:00pm grind do not need to accept a sleep-deprived existence as a given.

Professor Foster said raising awareness about the importance of a well-rested workforce was paramount — to benefit not only employees’ health, but the quality of their work output as well.

”I think there’s still the idea that sleep is for wimps, that it’s a badge of honour that you’ve spent all night working,” he said.

The dangers of sleep deprivation

Recognising that sleep-deprived workers will be cognitively-impaired is crucial not only while they are at work, but during their commute as well, Professor Foster said.

”So in the trucking industry for example in North America, they measure eye roll and as the eye moves back, it’s an indication that you’re going to fall asleep. So to stop these trucks going into other cars or anywhere else, they’re given an auditory alert to let them know they’re falling asleep.”

In July, Doctors.net.uk found that 41 per cent of the 1,135 UK doctors they surveyed had fallen asleep at the wheel after working a night shift, prompting a petition for better post-shift care.

Professor Foster said more work needed to be done to convince individuals and employers that sleep was important.

”So much of what’s going on in the brain during sleep helps with our ability to function optimally during the day,” he said.

”Memory consolidation, processing of information, the clearance of toxins, tissue repair — all of those essential house-keeping functions are going on.”

Shifts for larks and owls

Science shows that our sleep preferences shift throughout our lives.

But the predilection to being alert at certain times of day, otherwise known as a chronotype, means some people tend to be morning types (larks), evening types (owls) or mid-types who fall in-between.

So allowing workers to choose the shifts that match their chronotype may help them perform better at work, according to Professor Foster.

Another option would be for employers to form overlapping teams across a spectrum of sleep preferences.

”If you have a 24-hour business then why not form teams that deal with the North American market, the European market, the Asian market etc,” Professor Foster said.

”You then have teams that overlap in time that monitor the same thing, so you’re not going to get one person who makes overly impulsive and stupid decisions because they’re functioning at the inappropriate time of day.”

Mitigating what can’t be changed

Where certain hours are unavoidable, Professor Foster said the known health risks for those working night shifts meant they should be better cared for, and said there were things that could be done in the workplace now.

”Knowing that we’re going to have a whole range of higher risks — cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, cancer, and all the rest of it — we should for our night-shift workers implement higher frequency health checks,” he said.

”This is just obvious, to catch some of these conditions early on.”

The meals available for night-shift workers should also be more nutritious, Professor Foster said.

The production of insulin (which helps keep blood sugar stable) tends to be higher in the day than at night, and getting less shut-eye or low-quality sleep can also reduce insulin sensitivity, which is one of the risk factors for diabetes.

He suggested protein-rich meals of an ”almost baby-food consistency for easy digestion” would be better than sugars and refined carbohydrates when insulin resistance is lowered through the night, as well as giving a sense a satiation.

”It is absolutely extraordinary the food that we make available to our nightshift workers: high fat, high sugar … why don’t we make available the appropriate forms of nutrition, which would be relatively small parcels of protein-rich food to see them through the night?”


news source: abc.net.au


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