We know that sleep is important. The need for sleep is biologically similar to the need to eat and drink, and it is critical for maintaining life and health and for working safely. Sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night is linked with a wide range of better health and safety outcomes. NIOSH has been actively involved in research to protect workers, workers’ families, employers, and the community from the hazards linked to long work hours and shift work. In honor of National Sleep Awareness Week, we have summarized the sleep and work issue below and, in a companion blog tomorrow, will highlight NIOSH research in this area.
A growing number of American workers are not getting enough sleep. Research shows an increase from 24% in the 1980s to 30% in the 2000s in the percentage of American civilian workers reporting 6 or fewer hours of sleep per day—a level considered by sleep experts to be too short (Luckhaupt, Tak, & Calvert 2009).
Why are more Americans getting less sleep? Work demands are one factor. The timing of a shift can strain a worker’s ability to get enough sleep. Working at night or during irregular hours goes against the human body’s biology, which is hard-wired to sleep during the night and be awake and active during the day. Still, society needs certain workers around the clock to provide vital services in public safety, healthcare, utilities, food services, manufacturing, transportation, and others. The resulting shift work—any shift outside the normal daylight hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.—is linked to poorer sleep, circadian rhythm disturbances, and strains on family and social life. It is not possible to eliminate shift work altogether, so the challenge is to develop strategies to make critical services available while keeping workers healthy and everyone around them safe. In addition to shift work, some data suggest that a growing number of employees are being asked to work long hours on a regular basis. Every extra hour on the job is one less spent attending to the person’s off-the-job responsibilities. When the day is too full to fit everything in, it is often sleep that gets the short shrift.