Partial sleep deprivation, which is what about 4 in 10 Australians live with, reduces attention, memory, problem-solving and creativity as well as motor coordination, according to Professor Dorothy Bruck, Chair of the Sleep Health Foundation.
“These affect people’s safety on the job, perhaps through driving or through making unsound decisions,” she said.
“Another big issue is the low mood and increased irritability that many people with poor sleep experience,” said Bruck, who explained that depression becomes an increased risk, as can the risk of other conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Poor sleep affects every aspect of functioning, which is not surprising since every cell and every organ in the body needs sleep, she said.
Furthermore, people invested in the work that they are doing may not really switch off easily.
They may work after hours right until bedtime and expect to be able to go to sleep right away, just because the clock says it’s time for sleep.
“Our brains don’t work that way; the off switch is not instantaneous,” said Bruck.
“We need time to wind down before sleep – usually at least an hour – doing something relaxing and not being close to a computer screen.”
Screens emit light at the blue end of the spectrum which will suppress the hormone that rises during the evening and helps us get ready for sleep, called melatonin.
Bruck explained that there are computer programs that will make the screen light more orange in the evening (for example, flux) and these can be useful “but remember that lots of things we do on computers can be quite stimulating for the brain, which is not conducive to sleep.”
Bruck was commenting on the recent federal Sleep Health Awareness Inquiry, which calls for a national campaign to make the nation sleep better.
The Inquiry’s report (called Bedtime Reading) recommends that the Australian Government, in partnership with the states, territories and key stakeholder groups, work to develop and implement a national sleep health awareness campaign.
The Sleep Health Foundation said the campaign should:
OHS professionals can play an important role in improving sleep among workers, according to Bruck, who explained that education is the key.
“Encourage people to reflect on their sleep and consider what factors might be reducing its quality. Run seminars given by sleep health experts,” she said.
“Is there a possibility of a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea? Perhaps run screening sessions.”
A simple questionnaire (such as one called STOPBANG) can help identify who might be at risk of sleep apnea so they can be encouraged to see their GP, she added. “Insomnia questionnaires can also be a useful starting point for those seeking help,” said Bruck.