Are Naps Putting Shift Workers At Risk?

Nightshift workers and those working long hours know that taking a nap is sometimes a necessity and often beneficial.

However, research shows that sleep inertia may put workers at risk. Sleep inertia is that groggy, slightly dazed feeling that most people have when they wake up. It is characterised by slower reaction times, impaired alertness, impaired decision-making, reduced information processing and may interfere with the ability to perform mental or physical tasks.

Research about sleep inertia conducted at the University of SA Centre for Sleep Research shows that some nightshift workers might be at risk. It is particularly important for those who must function at full capacity in safety-critical jobs after returning from a break, such as long distance drivers, pilots, nightshift nurses and heavy machinery operators.


Short vs long nap times

A recent study found that the length of a nap has a strong correlation with sleep inertia time. Taking a 30-minute nap during a nightshift led to longer-lasting sleep inertia, with recovery times of up to 45 minutes.

However, a 10-minute nap during a nightshift led to little or no sleep inertia, and may help to stabilise performance for the hour after waking.

PhD Candidate Cassie Hilditch says her research shows how important it is for workers to allow enough time between taking a nap and recommencing of work.

“Our research suggests that if you have a 30-minute break in a shift at night, it is better to take a 10-minute nap at the beginning of your break. Don’t take a 30-minute nap if you need to return to work straight away,” Hilditch says.

Cognitive tests performed during the study showed participants had a tendency to overestimate their abilities after having a nap. The risk is greater when there is a gap between reality and perception. If a worker believes they are more alert than they actually are, there is definitely a safety risk, especially for those who are in safety-critical industries or for those who need to make critical decisions.


Tips nightshift for napping

Naps are still important and beneficial to combat tiredness.

Include a buffer zone between a nap and starting or resuming work.

Recovery depends on prior sleep loss.

Each individual is different.

Just remember to let the sleep inertia wear off before returning to work.


Safety for healthcare workers

Other studies have identified a link between a lack of sleep and increased safety risks for healthcare workers, who deal with challenges such as handling hazardous materials, handling heavy items and transporting goods.

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