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Workplace Scheduling Solutions

Many people are required to work long or irregular hours, work overnight or start work early in the morning. Such work hours often make it hard to get enough sleep or regular sleep, which in turn increases the risk of sleepiness and workplace accidents, and reduces productivity.

How work patterns are designed has a major effect on our ability to cope with them, and ensure sufficient sleep outside of work.

Several factors should be considered when designing work schedules:

Your 24-hour circadian clock

This controls the daily pattern of alertness. To be scheduled to work at night, when the brain is promoting sleep, is often a challenge for workplace safety. Taking into account the circadian rhythm in alertness is important when considering the pattern of night-shift work.

Being continuously awake

The longer you are awake, the more sleepy you become. This can be a particularly important consideration on the first day of a night shift rotation – if you wake up at the normal time in the morning and stay awake all day before starting the night shift, you will be very tired on the first night shift. Even staying awake for more than 16 hours without night work has a major impact on sleepiness levels, and so working long days can still be a concern. Thinking about how to break up long continuous wake episodes can help reduce this risk.

Chronic sleep deficiency

Getting only 6 hours’ time-in-bed for 2 weeks causes the same performance problems as someone who has been awake for 24 hours straight...

This is a major risk factor for sleepiness. It is recommended that adults get at least 7 hours’ sleep each night in order to maintain good alertness and health. This means spending more than 7 hours in bed. In younger adults, this number is higher. Failing to get enough sleep each night leads to chronic sleep deficiency, or the accumulation of a ‘sleep debt’. This debt has to be paid back quickly otherwise it becomes impossible to catch up – sleeping in at weekends is not enough. Sleepiness due to chronic sleep deficiency can build-up very quickly, for example, getting only 6 hours’ time-in-bed for 2 weeks causes the same performance problems as someone who has been awake for 24 hours straight which we know is linked to an increased risk of accidents and injuries at work. Ensuring that work schedules permit enough sleep each and every day is vital to avoid the build-up of chronic sleep loss.

Performing shortly after waking

The grogginess we can feel when we first wake up, or sleep inertia, can last for several hours, with the minutes shortly after waking being most problematic. Sleep inertia is made worse and lasts longer when waking in the middle of the night or from deep sleep. When people are allowed to sleep at work, for example doctors and firefighters, then sleep inertia can affect their workplace performance. Even for those sleeping at home, however, sleep inertia can affect their driving safety on the commute to work if they have only just woken up. Sleep and commuting times should therefore also be reviewed.

There is also information available on some of the other factors that affect sleep and therefore workplace sleepiness, such as underlying sleep disorders, the sleeping environment, and sleep habits.