Are sleepy workers a threat to safety, productivity?

About one-third of 1,000 workers said they had fallen asleep or become very sleepy at work in the previous month, according to a recent National Sleep Foundation survey.1 Also, about 10% of adults reported not getting enough sleep every day for the previous month, says a recently published study from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).2 The study also indicated that the percentage of adults who report sleeping six hours or less has increased from 1985 to 2006, across all age groups.

What can occupational health professionals do about this dangerous problem? According to Lela R. McKnight-Eily, PhD, the study's lead author and a behavioral scientist in CDC's Division of Adult and Community Health, you can begin by assessing whether workers are sleep-deprived. McKnight-Eily recommends using measures such as the Epworth Sleepiness Scale and Stanford Sleepiness Scale, which are used to measure daytime sleepiness.

"There are numerous health benefits that can be linked to employees improving sleep habits," says McKnight-Eily. Sleep disorders and sleep loss are significantly associated with mental distress, depression, anxiety, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and adverse health behaviors such as cigarette smoking, physical inactivity, and heavy drinking, she says.

"Sleep can be incorporated into employee wellness programs," she says. McKnight-Eily recommends:

  • Encourage workers to take short naps; avoid caffeine, alcohol, or stimulants several hours before going to sleep; and relax before going to bed.
  • Warn employees to be cautious about drowsy driving, as it is a cause of motor-vehicle morbidity and mortality.
  • Encourage shift workers to obtain adequate sleep during the time that they are not working.

"Employees who have persistent issues with obtaining adequate sleep, may require an assessment by a health care employee for the presence of a sleep disorder," says McKnight-Eily.


  1. National Sleep Foundation. 2008 Sleep in America Poll. 2008: Washington, DC.
  2. McKnight-Eily LR, Presley-Cantrell LR, Strine TW, et al. Perceived insufficient rest or sleep — Four states, 2006. MMWR 2008; 57:200-203.