Sleeping (Off the Job) to Improve Performance and Mental Wellness

Poor sleep is associated with increased risk for death by suicide, even after adjustment for depressive symptoms.
By Dennis Gillan
July 27, 2019

Much has been written about the adverse effects of fatigue in the workplace. According to the National Safety Council, “13% of workplace injuries can be attributed to fatigue.” Moreover, more than “37% of employees are sleep-deprived. Those most at risk work the night shift, long shifts, rotating shifts or irregular shifts.” This erratic schedule characterizes the work schedule for many construction workers.


Construction executives need to be aware that poor sleep habits can lead to poor performance on the job and pose a significant safety risk to employees. It is well documented that some of the most disastrous on-the-job accidents, such as the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, can be traced back to a sleep deficit or someone sleeping on the job.

Many construction crews live on the road and are subject to variable shifts, which can impact sleep drastically. A quick review of the research published on sleep and mental health clearly shows a link between high rates of sleep disturbance and an increased risk of death by suicide. One study, published in the Journal of American Medical Association JAMA Psychiatry, conducted a 10-year follow-up of 400 older adults regarding sleep and risk for death by suicide. The results concluded proper sleep and sleep deprivation impact suicidal ideation and behavior.

Specifically, the results of the study indicated “that poor subjective sleep quality is associated with increased risk for death by suicide 10 years later, even after adjustment for depressive symptoms. Disturbed sleep appears to confer considerable risk, independent of depressed mood, for the most severe suicidal behaviors and may warrant inclusion in suicide risk assessment frameworks to enhance detection of risk and intervention opportunity in late life.”

The construction industry has a problem with suicide. A recent analysis by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention identified the construction industry as the highest industry for completed suicides based on an analysis from 17 states.

The national average for completed suicides is 14.5 per 100,000 people in America. However, the number for those in the construction industry is a staggering 53.2 completed suicides per 100,000 construction employees. That is 3.6 times the national average.

The reason for this high rate and number of suicides in construction is multifactorial, but this article focuses on the benefits of construction workers and companies addressing sleep deprivation and sleep quality. The construction industry has a high rate of suicide and sleep has a huge impact on mental health status.

What can construction leaders do about this concern? Make sure discussions about the importance of sleep are a regular part of safety meetings. Don’t just bring it up, but talk frequently and extensively about it. Make sure crews adequately understand that good, quality sleep is not only important to their mental well-being, but to their safety on the job.

There are four quick points to drive home regarding proper sleep:

  1. Sleep in a cool room. The ideal sleeping temperature falls anywhere between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit. When sleeping, body temperature lowers naturally about two to three degrees. Setting up a cooler environment helps the body get there faster. Tell crews to crank up the air conditioner at night when they are on the road. Coach workers to get a programmable thermostat at home that automatically lowers the temperature at night. Science agrees that a cooler room helps stimulate sleep and allows sleepers to cycle naturally though the sleep stages. Skip a sleep stage and cognitive function falters.
  2. Make sure the room is dark. Even limited exposure to artificial light after dusk and just before bedtime may reduce sleep quality by suppressing production of the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep. Now most hotels are well lit from the outside at night but may not have shades that properly meet in the middle. An easy solution is to buy workers sleep masks and chip clips. If they won’t wear the sleep mask, they can use the chip clips to make sure the room darkening shades stay together at night. Hand them out while discussing the importance of sleep at all safety meetings. Remind crews that phone screens and computers emit light—light they don’t need as they are preparing for sleep. Suggest they read a book or magazine instead, because a Harvard study showed that reading a screen before sleeping will cause a person to feel sleepier and groggier when they wake up in the morning. Those who read from a screen before bed reported taking hours longer to fully “wake up” the next day, compared to those who read a printed book instead.
  3. Invest in a white noise machine. In the cooler months, sleeping with the window open will help cool the room, but not block the neighbor’s dog barking. A white noise machine or a white noise application from a mobile phone will help. When a noise wakes a sleeper, it's not the noise itself, that disturbs sleep patterns, but the sudden change or inconsistency in noise that jars the sleeper. White noise creates a masking effect, blocking out those sudden changes that frustrate light sleepers or people trying to fall asleep. The fan on the air conditioner may help here as well. Make sure the fan is set to “on” and not “auto”,so it stays operational the entire night to provide a consistent white noise effect.
  4. Engage in “power naps.” Winston Churchill said “Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

There are tangible benefits to the safety of team as measured by alertness after napping. A study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that napping improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%. How many construction accidents could have been avoided if just one person was more alert?

Shift work poses its own set of sleep problems, but research suggests that naps before work and the consumption of caffeine can improve alertness and performance among night shift workers. Keep the nap short to avoid sleep inertia. Research suggests that 10 minutes is optimal, and timing is everything. Try not to nap too close to regularly scheduled sleep and keep naps short.

The CDC has declared insufficient sleep as a “public health problem,” with more than one-third of American adults not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. It’s no fun catching employees asleep on the job, but this issue is really how they sleep off the job.

Sleep is one of many factors that contribute to the well-being of all individuals. In considering the mental health impact of poor sleep habits, one suicide in this industry is one too many. Management should talk about this issue early and often in safety meetings—and can sleep better knowing that they did.

by Dennis Gillan
Dennis Gillan is the President of DGIF, LLC, in Greenville, SC. Dennis is a national leader on the topic of Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Advocacy. He travels internationally speaking full-time, raising awareness and taking on the stigma of mental health issues. Dennis was deeply touched by suicide when he lost his two brothers to suicide 11 years apart from each other. After years of sitting on the sidelines, Dennis jumped into helping those in need by working part-time for the suicide prevention hotline in Chicago. After moving to South Carolina, Dennis got involved with several non-profits that take on mental health issues, which has allowed him to lobby lawmakers and others to raise awareness by sharing his story. Dennis is an active member of the Workplace Taskforce of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and has spoken to numerous construction companies and associations about mental health issues. 

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