09th Nov, 2020 Read time 5 minutes

How sleep can impact on your mental health and physical safety at work

The world of self-development has exploded as the internet has grown with many gurus preaching the benefits to your productivity and life of ‘beating the sun’ and waking up before 5 am. Whilst it is true that many of us are early risers and night owls, the simple honest truth is that sleep, whilst boring, is critical to your mental and physical well-being. 


This month on the HSE Network we are taking a look at sleep, the benefits of getting the right amount of it, the dangers for workers who don’t get enough, and how you can optimise it from a health and safety perspective to improve the well-being and safety of all stakeholders in a workplace. 


What impact does sleep have on your safety at work? 

The number of hours that you sleep a night has a big impact on your mood, your productivity at work, and your alertness in your job. Fatigue is often blamed for a number of health and safety-related accidents and issues. The study from Halvani, Zare, and Mirmohammadi (2009) found that whilst the relationship between sleepiness, shift work, and fatigue is not clear cut, there was a definite link between fatigue and risk of physical injury. 


The complexities around fatigue, alertness, and ‘sleepiness’ also illustrate the complexities around sleep. There are thought to various different stages of sleep fall under various categories including non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). You need both and as the studies into sleep continue it is becoming clearer that it is not simply a case of getting to bed and getting up at a reasonable time. 


How many hours of sleep do I need? 

The first question many have when it comes to sleep is how much they actually need. The average adult in the UK sleeps less than 7 hours a night and whilst this is better than nothing, it can have serious implications for their health at home and their safety at work. 


Sleep requirements vary but you should aim to get between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night. This maximizes the chances of you getting the correct amount of REM and Non-REM sleep which will not only improve alertness but also increase your overall long-term health. 



How shift work can impact mental and physical health

When it comes to sleep deprivation one of the trickiest types of work where it needs to be managed is shift work. Working through nights or on irregular shift patterns has been linked by the HSE Executive to fatigue, disruption to the body clock, and problems with physical and mental health.


 These issues have led to the recognition of ‘Shift Work Disorder’. Symptoms can include drowsiness, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, depression, and unfulfilling sleep. The risks of sleep deprivation through shift work disorder can lead to chronic issues developing over time due to an ever-increasing ‘sleep debt’ that is not paid back. 


One of the other and perhaps more alarming symptoms of shift work disorder is the ‘microsleep’ phenomenon. These can occur in sleep-deprived workers and happen when someone falls asleep briefly for even a few seconds. This can have big consequences for health and safety at work, particularly if the worker is operating machinery. 


In terms of the mental impact of shift work, increased fatigue, and chronic sleep deprivation can be detrimental and are often linked to increased risks of depression and anxiety. The lack of routine and need for energy boosts can also lead to workers reaching for unhealthy food choices to give them the energy they need to get through a shift. Poor diet has also been linked to poor mental not to mention physical health. 


What are the health and safety benefits of good sleep? 

Well-being and mental health if finally being given a much-needed focus on health and safety and in many cases, the simple things are often the best. As Tim Marsh stated in our interview from one of last year’s conferences ‘there is not a person on the planet who doesn’t know about good diet, good sleep, exercise and mindful meditation’, and whilst they are simple for many they are difficult to introduce. It is about harnessing the power of habit and understanding that diet, exercise, and mindfulness are all linked and can all work together to get you the sleep you need. 


In terms of the health and safety benefits of good sleep, a well-rested workforce is a lot less likely to have accidents at work, suffer from depression and anxiety, and develop long term health problems. This is great from an occupational health perspective. We will be covering more on the benefits of sleep in an HSE and the general context in our next article on the subject. 



Halvani, G.H., Zare, M. and Mirmohammadi, S.J., 2009. The relation between shift work, sleepiness, fatigue and accidents in Iranian Industrial Mining Group workers. Industrial Health, 47(2), pp.134-138.

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