Understanding Sleep Deprivation

Information taken from BITC – Sleep & Recovery toolkit

Managers need to be able to recognise the symptoms of sleep deprivation or poor sleep, particularly when it might be a health and safety issue to the colleague or members of the public. Knowing what to look for is important.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation include:

  • Decreased communication
  • Performance deterioration
  • Poor concentration / easily distracted
  • Poor cognitive assimilation and memory
  • Poor mood / inappropriate behaviour
  • Greater risk taking behaviour
  • Inability to make necessary adjustments
  • Increased intake of caffeine / energy drinks
  • Increased sickness / sickness absence

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

There may be more than one reason, and these may not be related to work, although the impact will be felt in the workplace. Line managers should try to understand what is causing sleep deprivation to be able to take steps to address the problem, including recognising when changes to work can help remove some causes of sleep deprivation. When health and safety is a concern, such as handling heavy machinery, an employer may request that an employee consult with their GP before resuming duties. An employee might not even be aware that he or she is not sleeping enough and may not be able to pinpoint the reasons. This might be the first time an employee has considered the significance of sleep.

Work-related causes:

  • Shift Patterns – Shift work involves working against the body’s natural circadian rhythm
  • Time Zone work –  Allowance must be made for extended working hours and the time it takes to recover from jet lag and international time differences.
  • Working day/week – The 24/7 economy requires many of us to work longer hours than a generation ago. Even when our formal working hours have not changed substantially, we find it harder to disconnect from work because of our mobile devices and expectations of an immediate response
  • Stress – Work-related stress can have an adverse impact on sleep. The risk is greatest at times of change, or when there is uncertainty at work.
  • Work-relationships – Work is central to many people’s lives, and relationships with colleagues have a significant bearing on wellbeing.

Changes in Health and Wellbeing

  • Temporary / treatable illnesses – A short-term illness or injury can affect the quality of sleep or cause sleep deprivation. Small adjustments to working arrangements, including working from home and flexibility around working hours, may aid recovery
  • Onset of a lifelong condition / disability – Employees diagnosed with serious illness or those who experience a life-changing disability are more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation in addition to other problems linked to their diagnosis. A side effect of medication or treatment such as chemotherapy can be sleep disturbance. Cancer Research UK provides support for chemotherapy and insomnia.
  • Mental Health – There is a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Living with a mental health problem can affect how well you sleep and poor sleep can have a negative impact on mental health.
  • Pregnancy – Sleep can be difficult at any stage of a pregnancy and adjustments must be made in the workplace if an employee chooses to disclose their pregnancy. Pregnant workers can review NHS Choices for advice about sleep during pregnancy.
  • Age-related – When we are older we are more prone to being affected by a poor sleep environment or entrenched lifestyle factors. An older worker may need more time to recover from a late/night shift than in their younger years.
  • Menopause – The menopause transition can disrupt sleep for a prolonged period. Employers are encouraged to make adjustments at work, such as providing desk fans, cold water fountains, access to natural light, quiet workplace rest areas and non-synthetic clothing or uniforms.

Personal and Lifestyle factors

  • Poor housing – Living conditions that are noisy, cramped, damp, or poorly heated and ventilated can contribute to fatigue and sleep deprivation. While most employers have limited scope for influencing where and how people live, it is important to understand the pressures that employees and their families must cope with in order to provide appropriate support in the workplace.
  • Financial – Money problems can cause anxiety, which leads to sleep deprivation. Employers can signpost financial advice, including credit unions, which offer lower rates of interest on loans. Citizens Advice is a source of online information about debt management.
  • Bereavement – The loss of a loved one can precipitate an extended period of sleep deprivation. Fatigue, anxiety and mood swings are common during bereavement. Knowing that their employer supports them can help to minimise the employee’s stress levels and reduce or avoid periods of sick leave, as well as aiding sleep and recovery
  • New parents – One inevitable consequence for new parents is sleep deprivation. Families have the option of shared parental leave but employers also should consider making other reasonable adjustments, particularly in the first few months.
  • Personal Life – Significant changes at home can also affect sleep patterns for prolonged periods, with a detrimental impact at work. Divorce and separation should be considered as risk factors, as should disputes over child custody. The charity Relate (www.relate.org.uk) provides support and information for families.

Sleep Disorders

Line managers should encourage employees to seek advice from their GP for symptoms of a possible sleep disorder. These include insomnia and breathing related disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea. They can have a significant impact on health and wellbeing, but they can be treated.

Line managers should consider health and safety implications when an employee has been diagnosed with a clinical sleep disorder. Does it put the safety of colleagues, or members of the public at risk? Should an employee be temporarily reassigned to other duties?

Workplace adjustments may be required to support employees who have a clinically diagnosed sleep disorder, including extended leave or working from home, temporary help with work responsibilities, or reassignment to another role.


Stress is one of the main causes of sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality. In many cases, the cause of stress is outside the workplace, but in around a third of cases, it is related to work.

All employers have a legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. This includes minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees.

People sometimes get confused about the difference between pressure and stress. Everyone experiences pressure regularly – it can motivate people to perform at their best. It is when people experience too much pressure and feel unable to cope that stress can result.

Many organisations have reported improvements in productivity, retention of staff and a reduction in sickness absence after tackling work-related stress. As an employer, you are also required by law to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities and take action to control that risk.