10 Dangers of a Sleep Deprived Workforce

tired sleep deprived worker With two-thirds (63%) of Americans reporting that their sleep needs aren’t met during the week, sleep deprivation is a societal epidemic that exists across all countries, economic statuses, industries, and seniority levels.1

Sleep deprivation is an issue that is often ignored, yet frequently the root cause of decreased productivity, accidents, incidents and mistakes which cost companies billions of dollars each year. Often companies are unaware of the impact fatigue or sleep deprivation is having on their operation until a tragic accident occurs… only then do managers ask the question: “What happened?”

Here are 10 dangers of having a sleep deprived workforce:

1. Decreased Communication
When workers are tired, they become poor communicators. In one study, researchers noted that sleep deprived individuals:

  • drop the intensity of their voices
  • pause for long intervals without apparent reason
  • enunciate very poorly or mumble instructions inaudibly
  • mispronounce, slur or run words together
  • repeat themselves or lose their place in a sentence sequence

2. Performance deteriorations
Performance declines frequently include increased compensatory efforts on activities, decreased vigilance, and slower response time. The average functional level of any sleep deprived individual is comparable to the 9th percentile of non-sleep deprived individuals.

Workers must notice these performance declines, right? Not quite. In fact, sleep deprived individuals have poor insight into their performance deficits. Also, the performance deficits worsen as time on task increases.3

3. Increased risk of becoming distracted
Sleep deprived individuals have been shown to have trouble with maintaining focus on relevant cues, developing and updating strategies, keeping track of events, maintaining interest in outcomes, and attending to activities judged to be non-essential. In fact, research suggests that there is a symbiotic relationship between sleep deprivation and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) due to the overlap in symptoms.4

4. Driving Impairments
Due to federal regulations, the trucking industry is well aware of the driving impairments associated with sleep deprivation; however, plant managers are unaware of the ways in which sleep-deprived workers may be dangerously operating machinery (e.g. forklifts or dump trucks). In fact, 22 hours of sleep deprivation results in neurobehavioral performance impairments that are comparable to a 0.08% blood alcohol level - that’s legally drunk in the United States.5

5. Increased number of errors
The cognitive detriments of sleep deprivation increase concurrently with a worker’s time on a given task, resulting in an increased number of errors. These errors include mistakes of both commission (i.e. performing an act that leads to harm) and omission (i.e. not performing an expected task), which can wreak havoc at any work facility. Errors are especially likely in subject-paced tasks in which cognitive slowing occurs, and with tasks that are time-sensitive, which cause increases in cognitive errors.3

6. Poor cognitive assimilation and memory
Short-term and working memory declines are associated with sleep deprivation and result in a decreased ability to develop and update strategies based on new information, along with the ability to remember the temporal sequence of events.3

7. Poor mood appropriate behavior
Inappropriate mood-related behavior often occurs in outbursts, as most sleep deprived individuals are often quiet and socially withdrawn. However, a single one of these outbursts can be enough to destroy the positive culture of a work environment and cause an HR nightmare.

These behavioral outbursts can include irritability, impatience, childish humor, lack of regard for normal social conventions, inappropriate interpersonal behaviors and unwillingness to engage in forward planning.2

8. Greater risk taking behavior
Brain imaging studies have shown that sleep deprivation was associated with increased activation of brain regions related for risky decision making, while areas that control rationale and logical thinking show lower levels of activation. In fact, sleep deprivation increases one’s expectation of gains while diminishing the implications of losses.6

What does this mean for your workers? Sleep deprived workers may be making riskier decisions, ignoring the potential negative implications, and taking gambles in scenarios in which the losses outweigh the benefits.

9. Inability to make necessary adjustments
Flexible thinking, preservation on thoughts and actions, updating strategies based on new information, ability to think divergently, and innovation are all negatively impacted by sleep deprivation. A worker may be unable to fill a leadership role on request when sleep deprived, resulting in a frustrated management team.

10. Effects of sleep deprivation compound across nights
Four or more nights of partial sleep deprivation containing less than 7 hours of sleep per night can be equivalent to a total night of sleep deprivation. A single night of total sleep deprivation can affect your functioning for up to two weeks.3 To your brain, sleep is money and the brain is the best accountant.

The Conclusion: Rather When Than If

The moral of the story is the following: when you have sleep deprived or fatigued workers, your productivity levels and quality of work will be compromised. Furthermore, you will be creating an environment where it becomes not a matter of if your workplace will have an accident or incident but a matter of when, and to what magnitude.

Clearly sleep deprivation is no laughing matter, no matter how frequently our society treats the issue light-heartedly. Eventually our biological drive to compensate for sleep deprivation wins at the end of the day, and the loser might be your workers, your company, or even yourself.

Luckily, there are a variety of ways to monitor, manage, and mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation, such as biocompatible shift scheduling or corporate sleep education seminars. Want to learn more about the ways to keep your workplace safe from fatigue-related accidents?

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  1. National Sleep Foundation (2011, March 7). Sleep In America Poll. Retrieved from: http://sleepfoundation.org/media-center/press-release/annual-sleep-america-poll-exploring-connections-communications-technology-use-
  2. Harrison, Y., & Horne, J. A. (2000). The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: a review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 6(3), 236.
  3. Durmer, J. S., & Dinges, D. F. (2005, March). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. In Seminars in neurology (Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 117-129).
  4. Owens, J. A. (2005). The ADHD and sleep conundrum: a review. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 26(4), 312-322.
  5. Dawson, D., & Reid, K. (1997). Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature, 388(6639), 235-235.
  6. Venkatraman, V., Chuah, L., Huettel, S., & Chee, M. (2007). Sleep deprivation elevates expectation of gains and attenuates response to losses following risky decisions. Sleep, 30(5).

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