As reported at the Royal Perth Hospital Research Foundation’s Pilbara Sleep Health Summit last week, almost all (97 per cent) shift workers are unable to adjust their body clocks between day and night shifts and are missing out on quality sleep.
In Australia, shift work serves multiple purposes within the labour market. It allows employers to maximise production by making full use of 24 hours each day, while ensuring many essential services are provided to the community around the clock.
According to Professor Peter Eastwood from the University of Western Australia, who is an expert in sleep science and spoke at the summit, 17 per cent of Australians are engaged in shift work and the need to transition between day to night shifts is putting them at high risk of fatigue.
“We know that inadequate sleep affects about 40 per cent of Australians and costs our economy $66 billion per year,” Professor Eastwood said.
“However, with shift work, employees need to change sleep cycles frequently, so the impact on them is far greater.”
Professor Eastwood further detailed that sleep disturbance is associated with many health risks and is the fourth-most common mental health problem for Australians aged 12 to 24, after depression, anxiety and drug abuse.
“When you take this into account, it becomes imperative to look at ways to improve the management of fatigue and shift work,” he said.
It is recognised that shift work, especially for those involved in the fly-in fly-out (FIFO) resources sector, can have a large impact on the mental health of workers.
Last year, a comprehensive report by the Mental Health Commission found that one-third of FIFO workers (33 per cent) experience high levels of psychological distress, in comparison to only 17 per cent of non-FIFO workers.
Along with higher levels of psychological distress, the research found FIFO workers also suffer more incidents of workplace bullying and higher levels of burnout than non-FIFO workers.
To address this, Mines and Petroleum Minister, Bill Johnston launched Australia’s first code of practice in April to help promote and maintain mentally healthy workplaces for FIFO workers in Western Australia’s resources and construction sectors.
Developed following extensive public consultation, the code aims to address hazards and risk factors such as work demands and low levels of control in FIFO workplaces and promotes strategies to deal with these issues.
In addition, earlier this month Curtin University’s Centre for Transformative Work Design launched a comprehensive set of mental health support resources for WA workplaces. The assessment tools, educational materials and other resources were developed with a $500,000 grant from the WA Government, as part of the implementation of the Suicide Prevention 2020 strategy. The resources, including the development of a new website, aims to assist workplaces to promote positive employee mental health and wellbeing.
Professor Eastwood believes that it is important to acknowledge that fatigue is a major issue in sectors that operate 24/7 and the impact of sleep is significant.
“More research is needed into sleep health in the resource sector, particularly those who work in mining, oil and gas. We need to consider the design of shifts based on objective information and ways of monitoring sleep to support the reduction of inherent fatigue risk. Fatigue Risk Management Systems have been developed and will need to be continually refined to lower the occupational health and safety risks associated with fatigue at work.”
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