If you live to the age of 80, which is the average life expectancy in Australia, you will have spent 28 of those years asleep. That is, if you’re lucky. An evaluation of the sleeping habits of Australians, published in 2013 by the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), suggests that between 20 to 35 per cent of people suffer from disrupted or inadequate sleep and daytime fatigue. While half of these are due to sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea, the rest can be put down to poor sleep habits.
It hardly needs to be said that lack of sleep affects our alertness and cognitive ability, as well as depresses the metabolism. But over a prolonged period, sleeplessness can also lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, poor mental health, and is a cause of premature death.
The effect of sleep disorders alone (before poor sleeping habits are factored in) is having a dramatic effect on the bottom line. Productivity loss and non-health care costs of fatigue-related accidents cost the Australian economy $3.1 billion each year, according to a 2011 report by the Sleep Health Foundation and Deloitte. While in the US, a Harvard Medical School report put the loss of annual income due to insomnia at US$63 billion.
“Despite some progress, the consequences of sleep loss remain under-recognised across the majority of workplaces and much of the community,” reports a 2013 MJA article.
The difficulty is that sleeping behaviour crosses the private-public boundary. When Safe Work Australia introduced guidelines for managing risk of fatigue at work in 2013, former Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson said that employers should not be held responsible for fatigued workers worn out from partying or family demands. “It would require employers to delve into matters of a personal and private nature that are none of their business. We don’t want to be the yawn police.”
Nevertheless, work health and safety legislation, which applies across Australia, obliges employers to ensure that employees are operating in a healthy and safe environment. The implication says Greg Robertson of Harmers lawyers is that they should try and be aware of an employee’s poor sleeping before an accident occurs. This is particularly the case for shift workers, whose numbers are on the rise. Currently 1.5 million Australians work shifts, employed in industries such as transport, police work, mining, aviation and health care, among others. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, rotating shifts are not only the most stressful, but have serious health risks.
To counteract the effects of shift-work, Shantha Rajaratnam and Ronald Grunstein, researchers from the NHMRC Centre for Integrated Research and Understanding of Sleep, say that employers should be scheduling napping and prioritising workloads so that tasks requiring the highest levels of concentration take place at the beginning of a shift.
But it’s not only at work where employers can be held responsible if accidents occur. Andersons solicitors in South Australia pose a hypothetical case of an employee who suffers a car accident on the way home after a double shift, suggesting that an employer might be liable as “the accident was a direct result of fatigue caused by working such long hours, so there is a real and substantial connection between the employment and the accident.”
The line between work and relaxation is increasingly blurred says Robertson as our ability to communicate allows work tasks to crossover into home life. “We see cases where employees are reporting that they are exceptionally tired and are being contacted all hours of the day and night by employers,” he says. “Email continues to come to your phone and there is an expectation that employees will deal with it. Devices sit by the bed and they are the last thing that is read at night. For very senior people, it’s expected that they will work those kind of hours but that [intrusion] seems to be moving down the chain,” says Robertson.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the May 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Eyes wide shut’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.