How - and why - to reduce fatigue in the workplace

Poor sleeping habits are said to cost our economy as much as $20 billion each year in lost productivity. Here’s how to keep your staff (and yourself) awake and alert at work!

It’s estimated that around 1.6 million Australians have some sort of problem with sleep, and it is costing businesses around $15 to 20 billion each year in lost productivity. 

Insufficient sleep leads to a rapidly accumulating sleep debt, with compounding interest.

While going with less sleep is sometimes viewed as a symbol of fortitude, it is a pyrrhic victory. The more tired we are, the more our performance suffers. It’s harder to concentrate. We make more mistakes. We fail to remember things and, worse still, start to create false memories.

Most of us need between seven and eight hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep to wake fully restored and refreshed. It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of the population gets by on only six hours. While manageable in the short term, this is not sustainable to maintain normal brain function and health.

When fatigued, the first insight we lose is the understanding of how tired we really are! 

Once we have been awake for around 17 to 18 hours, our ability to think is equivalent to that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 per cent. After 20 hours this surges to 0.1 per cent.

Being drunk is not tolerated in the workplace, so why is fatigue?

Restoring memory, attention and executive function can be achieved by identifying and addressing the factors contributing to our levels of tiredness.

Understand the value of sleep

Some organisations now include sleep education to promote healthy sleep habits for all employees. Understanding how to get sufficient, good-quality sleep is just as important as time management for greater productivity.

Make sleep a priority

Research has revealed how our capacity for insight and creativity slumps when we are tired. Some workplaces provide sleep pods for employees to take a 20-minute power nap to restore energy levels and good executive function.

You don’t need a posh pod, just a quiet room where you won’t be interrupted and a comfortable reclining chair. Around 6 per cent of American workplaces are now deemed ‘nap-friendly’. While sleeping on the job might feel strange, the payoff is a two to three hour boost to your level of alertness, attention and focus.

Provide flexibility and boundaries in working hours

If you’ve been pulling a couple of all-nighters or putting in extended hours to get that important project finished, what matters is taking sufficient time off afterwards to allow full recovery.

Shifting a workplace culture towards one that recognises the importance of sleep, starts with setting boundaries of when you are expected not to be at work.

Monitor stress levels

High levels of stress during the day make it harder to switch off and relax at night. If your sleep pattern is becoming increasingly disturbed and there’s a lot on at work, this is the signal you are in urgent need of some down time.

Try going to bed 20 minutes earlier and switch off all technology (including the phone).

Take regular brain breaks

Working hard all day long without stopping is mentally exhausting, and can lead to disturbed sleep at night.

Block your day into 60 to 90 minute chunks, interspersed with 15-minute intervals of unfocused or less cognitively demanding tasks, to give your brain the breathing space it needs to restore and reboot.

Get out of the office and move

Regular daily exercise helps to burn off stress and promotes better quality sleep.

Thirty minutes of ‘huff ’n’ puff’ either before work or during the day is ideal. Avoid exercising too late in the evening as this makes it harder to get to sleep.

Keep the bedroom for sleep and sex only

Switch off all technology at least 60 minutes before bedtime and ditch the digital alarm clock. That pesky blue light tricks the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, but switching to a yellow background means you are still engaged and stimulating your brain for longer than is ideal.

Using your smartphone late at night has been shown to reduce performance the following day.

Sleep matters for our health and wellbeing as well as our performance. Bringing our best self to work each day starts by ensuring we get a good sleep every night.

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner, speaker and author, specialising in brain health and the science of high-performance thinking. 

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