Employers Can Control Some Fatigue Factors

News Updates

From the manager who fell asleep in the office while working with a new employee, to the sous chef who dozed off whenever he sat down in front of a computer to complete paperwork, to the call center employee caught snoozing at his desk, American workers are a sleep-deprived lot.

Fatigue is on the rise among U.S. workers. In fact, 81 percent of 820 HR leaders think that fatigue among workers is worse than in previous years, according to the 2010 Workforce Management Trends Survey by WorkForce Software.

There are a number of reasons for fatigue on the job—including medical conditions and holding down multiple jobs or other responsibilities in addition to maintaining a work schedule.

The National Sleep Foundation says self-imposed sleep deprivation is one of the primary reasons why Americans are fatigued.

“People may skimp on sleep in hopes of getting more done, and widespread access to technology makes it possible to stay busy around the clock,” it points out on its website.

However, too few employees for the work to be done is the main reason for workplace fatigue, said HR leaders in the survey. Other top reasons they identified from a list of potential factors: the disappearing boundary between home and work life, and employees who overwork out of fear of losing their jobs.

Culture, Structure Are Factors

Organizations’ drive to work “lean” also can be a factor, according to a January 2011 Human Capital Institute webcast, “Managing Employee Fatigue Without Losing Sleep.”

An employer’s expectations and staffing model often are at cross-purposes with its business strategy, said Susan L. Koen, Ph.D., CEO and founder of Maine-based Round-The-Clock Resources Inc.

Koen, who was among the webcast speakers, pointed out that reducing the head count while expecting to maintain the same output, or increase it, is unrealistic.

What is happening, she said, is that organizations are isolating head count as a cost to control instead of viewing head count as a strategic tool.

“We’re cutting down head count to achieve a cost metric that is often at direct odds with our performance metrics,” Koen told SHRM Online. “They’re not associating the effects of overtime on things like error rates and quality problems, absenteeism, retention. All of those things are directly affected by hours of work. You have to really look at your staffing model in relation to your hours of work and the consequences of cost of that relationship.”

Then there’s the workplace culture. A senior-level leader who e-mails employees at 2 a.m., for example, sends the message that work is more important than sleep, she said.

Fatigue’s Impact

Fatigue can contribute to industrial accidents and injuries, hurt business performance and productivity, and contribute to errors and product liability risks. It can affect public health and safety, and it can be a factor in employee obesity and cardiovascular disease, Koen noted.

Cognitive fatigue affects alertness, perception, reasoning or learning, she explained. At its most severe, such as when someone has been awake for 14 to 17 hours followed by only six hours of sleep, the fatigue can be similar to being under the influence of alcohol.

“Once you’re sleep deprived … you cannot simply will yourself out of it,” she said. The brain begins to look for the first opportunity to grab “micro-sleeps,” short periods of unconsciousness that can happen any time when a person is cognitively fatigued.

“You are no longer in control. The brain simply drops into Stage 3 sleep, though you appear to go on as though you’re wide awake,” she said of cognitive fatigue.

Grabbing 40 Winks

The National Sleep Foundation’s 2008 Sleep in America poll found that 29 percent of Americans fall asleep or become very sleepy at work. Nearly one-fourth of 1,000 U.S. office workers admit to napping at work, according to the Workplace Power Outage Sleep Survey conducted by phone for Philips Consumer Lifestyle in November 2010.

Break time is nap time for some employees, according to comments posted at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) HR Talk forums.

“I do it during lunch. I have people doing it in their cubes. No one’s worried, as it doesn’t affect productivity,” one HR professional wrote in a post on HR Talk. Another noted in a post that “we have a quiet room with recliners for employees who need a nap.”

Some U.S. organizations have established nap rooms for employees. The SHRM 2010 Employment Benefits Survey found that 5 percent of HR professionals surveyed say that an on-site nap room is among their organizations’ wellness benefits. Employers that provide employees with a place to snooze include a small mobile technology company in Arizona, plus Google and Nike, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in August 2010.

Other HR professionals, though, say that their employer takes a dim view of employees sleeping at work, even when it’s done on the employee’s break—whether it’s behind closed doors or in the employee’s car—because of concerns that it looks unprofessional to visitors.

How to deal with dozing desk jockeys is an issue that HR struggles with, according to comments posted on HR Talk. There, advice ranges from the medical—requesting a doctor’s note from the employee so reasonable accommodation can be made if there is an underlying medical cause—to talking to and warning the employee—and terminating if the problem persists.

“There is a very high percentage of undiagnosed sleep apnea,” Koen said. “It’s really important from a liability point of view for HR to first be sure that they don’t have an employee who’s potentially in that medical state of undiagnosed sleep apnea before they take steps to summarily fire the person.”

She cautions HR not to be too quick to terminate the sleepy employee.

“We’ve created a vicious circle. By having lower head counts and higher overtime or extended workdays for the people remaining in the workforce, the company is creating the conditions that will lead to more employees being in a state of cognitive fatigue or actually sleeping at work,” Koen said.

“If you take the blame-the-victim approach, you could be creating a liability for your company” if the employee can link his or her workplace fatigue to the demands of their workplace. Not only that, “if you just start using a firing approach, you could be losing a lot of good talent,” she added.

The most important action HR can take, she said, “is to be an advocate for senior leadership to learn about this topic and its consequences for the business, the strategic value of fatigue risk mitigation … and the impact on their business performance and business longevity.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.