The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) recently held a roundtable meeting on sleep and the workplace during which doctors highlighted the “huge issue” of commuting home from the night shift, warning that 24-hour shift workers who have just come off shift have 55 times the risk of having an accident than someone who has just got up.

The discussion at the meeting was opened by sleep expert Dr Karen Robertson from the defence tech company QinetiQ, who pointed out that although raising awareness of the need for an adequate amount of sleep is key, it should be acknowledged that not everyone requires the recommended seven to nine hours.

Public Health England has produced a sleep and recovery toolkit for employers, but the challenges organisations face to put this into practice can be enormous.

Those at the meeting heard that shift work and long commutes mean that some employees don’t even have the required 11 hours away from work that would allow them to get seven to nine hours’ sleep.

In the emergency services, for example, employees can be told to work on rest days, and are sometimes required to work 24-hour shifts. There is no “clocking off”, and rotas are complex.

Commuting, particularly commuting home from the night shift, is said to be a huge issue. Some 20 to 25% of road traffic accidents are fatigue related, and these types of accidents tend to be more devastating.

Twenty-four hour shift workers who have just come off shift have 55 times the risk of having an accident than someone who has just got up.

According to the SOM, “It was agreed there is a lack of general sleep advice. Funding is currently focused on mental health, but sleep looks likely to be the next big area of concern. The link between sleep and mental health was noted, as well as the link between sleep and physical health. Indeed, sleep is often an indicator of people’s general state of health.”

Last reviewed 29 November 2019