A Dangerous Epidemic of Sleepy Workers

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According to a Statistics Canada four-year study reported in the National Post, men working on evening, rotating or irregular shifts had higher odds of developing chronic health conditions than men working regular daytime shifts. In Montreal, a University of Laval researcher discovered a connection between sleep deprivation and obesity.

According to the National Post article by reporter Gabreille Bauer on work-related sleep deprivation (December 24, 2005), some Canadian sleep researchers have coined the term, “Toronto Syndrome” after Canada’s largest and most driven city. This Toronto Syndrome consists of “a self-imposed sleep deficit stemming from long working hours followed by voluntarily long evenings of family time or pub-time with corporate cronies.” Bauer also notes that people who work at home often burn the midnight candle, when the house is quiet and then can’t sleep afterwards.

Dr. Adam Moscovitch, medical director of the Canadian Sleep Institute in Calgary says the cost of sleep-deprived errors and accidents rang up a total cost of $75 billion in North America in one year. Dr. Moscovitich has launched the consulting group know as Fatigue Solutions International to develop practical solutions to these problems and plans to launch a similar project in Toronto.

According to Dr. Moscovitch, the worldwide human error/accidents peak periods occur between 2 and 4 AM, during the first and second night shift, during the first and second days back to work and within a few hours of starting a shift, especially on shift starts before 7:30 AM and finally, on the commute home from a night shift.

According to the Workmen’s Compensation Board, work-related injuries triple during the overnight hours. Dr. Moscovitch believes that it is crucial to be proactive about identifying and managing root causes of fatigue in the workplace.

“Sleep deprivation has to be thought of as joint personal and corporate responsibility,” he told Bauer in an interview.

Melatonin is often beneficial to shift workers as is a completely darkened room to mimic our normal light-dark cycle.

It is becoming increasingly clear that humans do not do well when their basic diurnal rhythms are disturbed by unnatural sleep wake cycles and excess light, noise or other disruptions.

If all else fails, a wide range of sleep medications, including short-acting drugs, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants may be necessary. Once you recognize the sleep problem, book an appointment to discuss possible solutions with your family doctor.

Dr. Judith Davidson, an assistant professor in psychology at Queen’s University uses behavioral techniques to help people sleep better. She described these techniques in a chapter in a new book, Encyclopedia of Behavior Modification and Therapy. The therapy is known as stimulus control therapy.

“It’s a brief set of instructions designed to help you associate bed with sleep, “she explained to reporter Gabrielle Bauer.

For example, she says, “Go to bed only when sleepy and use the bed only for sleeping and sex.” She also recommended cutting down on the time you spend lying awake in bed.

Health workers who are on shift work can be dangerously tired during night shifts. Some nurses have told me that they cannot easily make the transition from day to night shift. During their night rotations, they cannot sleep during the day.

Interns and doctors on call can also suffer from serious sleep deprivation. In these professions, drowsiness or lack of alertness could be potentially life-threatening to emergency patients when critical decisions must be made. Both hospital staff and management have to be alert to the problems and work together to seek creative solutions to the challenges of shift work.

For example, it is important to recognize biological differences in people’s biorhythms. Some people are nighthawks and do well on a night shift while others work best in the morning. Some prefer time off in the evenings and others prefer to sleep in.

Hospital administrators and nursing supervisors have to develop an acute sensitivity to the sleep deprivation of their staff and develop concrete practical ways to monitor and act on the problems identified.

The bottom line is to recognize when you are drowsy, alert your supervisor and work together to develop solutions that create safer working conditions.

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