Sleeping on the job may become the norm for Australia’s million plus shift-workers if research by RMIT sleep expert Dr Melinda Jackson gets the nod.
A registered psychologist who specialises in sleep disorders, Jackson said there is mounting evidence that a nap during a night shift can improve production and safety at work.
With evidence suggesting fatigue played a role in major disasters including the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in Ukraine, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, Jackson’s on-going sleep research is likely to be paramount to shift workers around the world.
“All of those tragic incidents occurred during the early hours of the morning when the controllers were working through a night shift,’’ Jackson said.
“There is mounting evidence that napping during a shift can improve alertness and help maintain performance in the early hours.
“But critical to the beneficial effect of the nap is both the length and the time of the sleep and working out the best times to take a nap.
“If a nap is too long, the person can suffer sleep inertia, which leads to the feelings of grogginess on awakening.
“But in industries like hospitals, doctors on long shifts are actively encouraged to sleep.’’
Jackson’s research canvasses the consequences of sleep disturbance and shift work on cognition, mood and brain function.
Much of her work involves patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and sleep apnoea.
“Four per cent of males and two per cent of females suffer sleep apnoea, increasing to 30 per cent in people over the age of 65, making it a more prevalent in our ageing population.’’
While working at the Washington State University, Jackson was part of a team whose laboratory tests revealed how sleep loss impacted on people making critical decisions in real-world situations.
The results of those findings – that sleep loss impedes important decisions - are a lesson in industries in which workers such as doctors, soldiers and emergency service workers must make life and death decisions under stress and deprived of sleep.
A National Health and Medical Research Council Peter Doherty Research Fellow and RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow based in the School of Health Sciences and Health Innovations Research Institute, Jackson said people’s sleep needs change as they age.
“Older people need slightly less sleep and the quality of their shut-eye is poorer than the longer, deeper sleeps they enjoyed in younger years.
“About 30 per cent of people experience insomnia symptoms at some stage of their lives and sleep quality varies, depending on one’s stress levels and other external factors.
“But there is no quick fix or magic pill to solve the problem.’’
Instead, she said, research shows that regular sleep patterns and waking times can help improve a night’s sleep for most.
“Routine is important and winding down before bed. People should avoid exposure to bright light or electronic devices that can affect the body’s melatonin levels, and can make the mind more active when it needs to be relaxing.’’
Jackson said far from being a worry for employers, sleeping on the job is already encouraged in some industries.
“In the aviation industry for example, pilots rostered on a long-haul flights have nap opportunities fixed in to their rosters.
“And in Australia where long distances are the norm, power naps are to be actively encouraged for people driving long distances.’’