A Guide to Microsleep: How It Affects Workplace Safety

Tips & Tricks

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What is Microsleep?

Microsleep is a brief, fleeting episode of sleep lasting no more than a few seconds. It occurs as a response to severe sleep deprivation. Microsleep could strike at any moment, including night shifts, while working heavy machinery, and even while driving.

When microsleeps occur, it’s dangerous for all who are involved, whether you’re at work or not. Efficient work in a safe manner requires taking notice of how much (and when) your body needs rest.

What causes microsleep?

Many trades involve working irregular hours. This kind of lifestyle can potentially affect your circadian rhythm — your body’s internal clock. When your body senses daylight, it releases hormones to keep you alert and awake. When it perceives darkness, it produces more melatonin, helping you to wind down and fall asleep.

When you ignore the natural impulses of your body (to sleep when it’s dark and work when it’s light) you may experience a shift in your circadian rhythm. This leads you to become drowsy at times you may not expect — like in the middle of a job.

It could occur at the end of a long night of no rest, during the day, or any other time when the sleep pressure becomes high enough that it’s impossible to stay awake. You may not even know it’s happening until you’re unconscious.

Insomnia, mood disorders, weakened immunity, and decreased cognitive abilities are all symptoms of a disrupted circadian rhythm. If you recognise these traits in yourself, you may be putting yourself at risk for microsleeps.

apprentice watching his boss do work

Symptoms of microsleep

Microsleep can be challenging to identify because afflicted individuals don’t always realize when episodes occur.

To keep an eye out for potential issues, be mindful of the signs:

  • Gaps in recent memory
  • Sudden episodes of confusion during complex tasks (i.e. driving)
  • Sudden lapses in attention
  • ‘Zoned out’ sensations
  • General exhaustion

Individuals who work irregular hours and struggle with sleep issues should be mindful that they could experience episodes of microsleep without warning.

The cost of sleep deprivation

According to the article “The Global Problem of Insufficient Sleep and Its Serious Public Health Implications,” shared by the Healthcare Journal, sleep deprivation and microsleeps point to a physical toll on the body as well as a high financial cost due to the errors they cause.

Weakened immunity caused by lack of sleep can also lead to an increased chance of contracting disease or illness. Research shows that weakened immune systems due to sleep deprivation can increase events such as:

  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cognitive decline
  • Workplace accidents
Adolescents who struggle with sleep deprivation are also more likely to suffer from depression and weight issues.

Microsleeps can cause:

  • Car accidents
  • Professional errors
  • Relationship issues
  • Personal harm or harm to a child (if caring for a child while a microsleep occurs)

Individuals who perform occupations that require close attention to critical tasks could make lethal mistakes during a microsleep. High-risk professions include jobs within the trade industry, healthcare workers, pilots, and truck drivers. Even a few moments of unconsciousness could be catastrophic — life-altering accidents can happen to anyone.

The most effective way to manage health & safety risks in the workplace is for all tradespeople to get proactively involved. To make things easier for you, we've put together a one-page H&S survey that you can get your team to fill out. Find out how effective your current H&S processes are — or if there are gaps that need filling.

Download H&S Survey Questions

Microsleep prevention and treatment

Avoid screens

Research shows that using smartphones and electronic devices can contribute to sleep issues. Blue light emitted from these devices suppresses melatonin, the chemical responsible for helping us sleep at night. Some phones and apps can change the brightness of your screen for nighttime use, but avoiding devices entirely for an hour before bedtime will likely help you sleep better.

Sleep hygiene practice

Creating a regular sleep routine could help get your circadian rhythm back on track. Try to keep a strict routine to prepare your body for sleep. Having a warm shower, a caffeine-free hot drink, and reading a book before bed could help prepare you for a good night’s rest. If you have kids who require attention during your off-hours, try to set routines for them that allow you to have your own time before bed as well.

Medical treatment

If you really struggle with sleep, talk to your GP about insomnia treatment. They could help you identify particular areas of struggle, manage anxiety, create a better structure, provide advice on improving your health and wellness, or provide access to medication.

Professional changes

Professional changes might be necessary if you’re still struggling. If you’re self-employed, make sure you don’t overwork yourself. Use technology like Tradify to cut down on your admin hours, and consider hiring help if you need it. If you work for someone else, conversations with your employer regarding your hours and options could help you find a solution. Finding a balance between work, life, and rest, will help you avoid a potentially dangerous situation.

Looking after our health is a critical component to safe and efficient work. Being mindful about wellness doesn’t have to feel like an extra job. With a bit of routine, rest, and awareness, you can feel great, perform your best, and keep everyone safe.