Fighting The Hidden Cost of Worker Fatigue

Operations, Technology

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Many live their lives by this well-known mantra, not realizing the perils that come with burning the midnight oil. In the modern 24/7 workforce, too many employees work long hours and get insufficient sleep, despite evidence that a lack of sleep hurts productivity, safety and overall health. CEOs who boast that they “only sleep 4 hours per night” poorly recognize the negative impact of sleep deprivation on decision-making and their own well-being.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), when workers fail to get seven or more hours of sleep on a regular basis, they experience cognitive decline and present employers with heightened safety risks and increased economic costs.

The Cost of Fatigue
The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that fatigued workers cost employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee in poor job performance each year, which is especially problematic for small and midsized businesses and start-ups. On a national scale, the total cost of annual health-related lost productivity is up to $136 billion, as chronic sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk of depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses that negatively impact a worker’s well-being and long-term health.

Many small business owners and managers may not realize the true impact of fatigue on their bottom line. To help employers gauge how much fatigue may be adding to annual expenditures, NSC and Brigham and Women’s Hospital created an online Fatigue Cost Calculator.

Susceptibility of Shift Workers
The effects of sleepiness are intensified for employees working night shifts, rotating shifts and long hours, and for those who have an early morning start time. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, 15 percent of full-time employees in the U.S. perform shift work, many of whom suffer from chronic sleep loss.

Workers on the night shift and those who drive at night have the highest risk for chronic sleep loss. The NSC found that 59 percent of night shift workers reported having a short sleep duration, compared with 45 percent of day workers. The risk of safety incidents was 30 percent higher during night shifts compared with morning shifts.

Creating a Sleep-Friendly Culture
To keep employees safe and productive, employers can create a workplace culture that values the importance of sleep.

  1. The National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project – involving the AASM, NSC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Sleep Research Society (SRS) and other partners – launched the “Sleep Works for You” campaign to encourage employers to promote healthy sleep in three steps:
  1. Learn about sleepiness in the workplace, its costs, its causes and how fatigue can lead to a higher rate of safety incidents.Edducate employees on fatigue, sleep health and sleep disorders, as well as strategies to improve alertness on the job, as part of a comprehensive employee wellness program. The National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project created a bedtime calculator to help employees determine their ideal bedtime based on when they need to wake up for work.
  2. Investigate the causes of fatigue in the workplace and implement fatigue risk management as part of a safety management system.

 When managing teams of shift workers or others at high risk for insufficient sleep, consider implementing a fatigue risk management system that includes these strategies:

  • Give employees a voice in their schedules
  • Assign regular, predictable schedules
  • Avoid assigning permanent night-shift schedules
  • Rotate shifts forward when regularly changing shifts
  • Avoid long shift lengths
  • Provide frequent breaks within shifts

 In addition, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers educational resources on sleep, shift work, and fatigue for employees and managers involved in a variety of industries.

For more information on how to keep employees safe from the risks and costs of fatigue, please visit