Keeping Overnight Technicians Alert, Focused & Motivated

Running a Sleep Center means you are particularly aware of the challenges facing shift and overnight workers. After all, these folks are not only often your patients, who are having sleep issues due to the nature of shift work, but are your staff as well. That is why a sleep center can serve as an excellent model for other businesses of how to keep morale and performance levels high among overnight workers. 

With more and more operations going to a 24/7-business model, Sleep Centers are uniquely qualified to lead the way. Sleep Centers not only have experience managing around-the-clock staff, but also can share their expert knowledge of circadian factors, performance, and sleep disorders.

Alertness of overnight workers in 24/7 operations is a growing safety concern. Technology has evolved dramatically that has enabled our current around-the-clock society. However, human beings have not evolved concurrently. We still are slaves to our internal sleep-wake cycles, or our circadian clock.  Science leaves no doubt as to the damaging effects caused by the disruption of circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation.

Perhaps the greatest risk associated with overnight workers however, is not at the work place at all, but on the way home due to the dangers of drowsy driving. According to the National Highway Safety Board, there are over 100,000 accidents every year that are caused by fatigue.  Sleep Centers must operate around-the-clock by their very nature. Therefore, all the personnel involved in the overnight hours of sleep center operations face these same fatigue-related risk factors.

What Can Be Done

If workers and managers of Sleep Centers are intimately familiar with the dangers of lack of sleep, they are just as intimately familiar with how to deal with them. As the manager of a Sleep Center you know that due to human variation, and environmental variations of 24 hour operations, there cannot be a “one size fits” all approach to managing alertness. However, the same factors need to be taken into account regardless of the working environment or personnel involved. A comprehensive approach to Alertness Management   needs to be taken that incorporates:

  • Education - Don’t assume that all sleep center personnel know about fatigue-related risks. Obviously, you can use a variety of methods to dispense this information.
  • Alertness strategies - There are a variety of alertness strategies that have been scientifically proven to improve alertness and performance in shift or overnight workers. These should certainly be employed by your Sleep Center. Such strategies include regulated use of caffeine, planned physical activity, and proper lighting. Believe it or not, one very effective alertness strategy is the use of naps. Several scientific studies have pointed at how scheduled naps can improve alertness and performance. In fact NASA began using planned naps during flight operations and reported a 34% improvement in all aspects of performance, and a 100% improvement in alertness! In any 24/7 setting, including your sleep center, planned naps can be a great way to cure spontaneous “nodding off” that we all know can and does occur. This can sometimes be considered counter intuitive to sleep professionals, who often say that napping can lead to insomnia. However there is a distinction between the poor sleep hygiene of napping during the day, and a planned nap used in a work setting for safety reasons.  
  • Scheduling and rotation - Scheduling is a vital component of fatigue management. Factors that should be taken into account are length of shifts, beginning and ending time of shifts, should you allow double, or extended shifts, day/night or night/day shift rotations, number of consecutive shifts, etc.
  • Healthy sleep - As sleep medicine professionals, workers at sleep centers are tasked with educating the general public about the growing prevalence of sleep disorders. That does not mean they are immune from them. In fact, your workers should set the example by doing everything in their power to identify and treat any of their own sleep disorders, and do everything they can to ensure they are getting a healthy amount of sleep.

In addition to the above, sleep centers should take the lead by implementing specific programs geared to reducing drowsy driving. The NHSB and the AAA have specific programs and educational materials available on strategies to prevent drowsy driving that they would be glad to share with you sleep center. Sleep centers have comfortable beds and sleeping environments. You should encourage your staff to use these if they are too tired to drive home.

Sleep Medicine professionals need to take the lead by addressing the problems of sleep deprived workers in our own backyards, and lead by example. We have a unique opportunity to address this important issue, by applying our extensive knowledge regarding sleep and the human condition. Successfully applying this knowledge in our own centers and labs provides a tremendous benefit to us, our workers, and our patients. Beyond that by setting such an example, it will hopefully serve as a model to the myriad other 24/7 settings throughout our communities. 

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