Many people emerge from the holiday season tired rather than rested. Their days off were filled with early mornings and late nights—contributing to exhaustion and disturbing their circadian rhythms (body clocks)—in addition to last-minute rushing and regular holiday stress.
And that’s not taking into account common pre-holiday activities and preparations, which often include weeks of additional stress. Some people also work side jobs or additional shifts to make extra money for the holiday. So it’s no wonder that many employees tend to return to work exhausted and irritable.
This recurring problem of sleep loss, exhaustion and frustration might not be considered a traditional safety issue, but it has a potentially huge impact on whether or not someone is injured. Sleep deprivation and other states affect safety at work and at home, and fatigued workers are much more likely to miss a safety hazard at work, ignore one at home, or be involved in a car crash on their daily commute.
Shorter days and lack of sunlight can also compound feelings of fatigue and contribute to people’s lower moods, exacerbating the issue further.
Effects of sleep deprivation
Research on sleep deprivation has always been plentiful but recent discoveries at Michigan State University clarified the level at which distractions can hinder a sleep-deprived person’s memories and make it challenging for them to successfully complete tasks that “involve following directions and include multiple steps.”
When addressing the question of safety, the researchers found that “individuals working critical jobs may put themselves and other members of society at risk because of sleep deprivation.” Sleep could be the difference between careful pre-start equipment checks and ticking off the boxes without really looking, between remembering one’s PPE and forgetting to wear it, or between following all the procedures and skipping some steps to save time.
Fatigue has a negative impact on reaction times, alertness and coordination, and people’s everyday actions in all industries are affected by sleep deprivation. A lack of sleep often results in minor errors, but it can also lead to major issues with life-changing consequences.
Unfortunately, many people think that fatigue is something they can manage or that they’re “just tired” and can push through it. But research from Harvard University found that one of the first faculties to be affected by fatigue is the ability to recognize fatigue, making the problem even more difficult to address.
How can organizations help?
Safety professionals, leaders and decision-makers should educate themselves on the subject of fatigue and sleep deprivation, and investigate possible solutions to this steadily growing problem.
If possible, organizations should minimize the impact of fatigue through more considerate scheduling and plan a production schedule to account for the times when workers are more likely to be more sleep-deprived. It’s important to understand that if holiday fatigue occurs, it’s only temporary and can be managed.
But organizations also need to remember that fatigue is a human factor safety issue and, as such, should be addressed through training. Human factors training can help employees grasp the dangerous effects of fatigue, learn how to recognize it in themselves and others, as well as teach them how to mitigate the potentially dangerous effects of fatigue.
Human factors safety training will also help with other factors—such as frustration and rushing—which are also common around winter holidays. But whatever the course an organization chooses, January post-holiday blues and sleep deprivation should be accounted for as employers help workers remain safe as they settle back into their regular routine.