Protecting workers from the dangers of sleep deprivation

Wednesday, 09 August, 2017

Protecting workers from the dangers of sleep deprivation

Almost 40% of Australians experience inadequate sleep, according to a new Sleep Health Foundation report.

The report, which was undertaken by Deloitte Access Economics, found that the total cost of inadequate sleep was an estimated $66.3 billion during 2016–17.

Lack of sleep can lead directly to fatality or work-related accidents, such as falling asleep while driving. In fact, sleep deprivation was linked to 3017 deaths in 2016–17.

It affects Australians of all ages, impacting on learning and decision-making as well as increasing the risk of mental and physical illness. It is also associated with chronic heart disease, obesity, depression and a range of other serious health conditions, which impacts the health budget.

In an effort to promote better sleep patterns among workers, it has been suggested that work health and safety authorities should tighten regulation in work sectors where sleep is irregular but responsibility is high, such as defence, transport and health.

A strong case also exists for implementing public preventative health measures to promote healthy sleep, as has been done in other areas involving lifestyle choice, such as smoking cessation, alcohol moderation, diet and exercise.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • research on the causes of primary sleep disorders;
  • encouraging prevention and early detection;
  • enhancing development and implementation of cost-effective treatment for sleep problems;
  • reducing smoking, obesity and other lifestyle causes of daytime sleepiness;

  • raising awareness of the importance of sleep hygiene;
  • occupational health and safety regulations that reduce circadian rhythm disruption from shift work and fatigue from excessive work hours — possibly including restrictions on driving without adequate sleep beforehand;
  • building design standards that increase natural light;
  • education about the benefits of switching away from blue light on screens at night.

Professor Tim Olds, a professor of health sciences at the University of South Australia, said that poor sleep quality and quantity are obviously a public health concern, but there are a few caveats to this study.

“The report is based largely on self-report data, which have relatively poor validity,” he said.

“In particular, some associations between sleep and health outcomes which are evident with self-report are often not evident when sleep is objectively measured. This suggests that ‘poor sleep’ may be a general category people use when things aren't going well.”

He believes that the study did not pay much attention to sleep characteristics other than duration, despite the fact that sleep quality, timing and day-to-day variability are also important.

“We have to consider the 24-hour day. If people are sleeping less, what are they doing with the time freed up?” said Olds.

“They may, for example, be watching more TV, which is associated with poor health outcomes. Similarly, if they are sleeping excessively, what are they giving up? Physical activity?”

Asleep on the Job: Counting the cost of poor sleep’ is the third report commissioned by the Sleep Health Foundation about the costs and consequences of sleep disorders and/or poor sleep. Previous reports were published in 2003 and 2010.

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