New research into sleep disruption aims to make emergency workers safer

New research being undertaken by Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health aims to discover if sleep disruptions from shift work are detrimental to the performance and decision-making of emergency workers.

The research involves simulating shift work and related sleep loss and examining its impact on workplace performance, decision making and stress responses in emergency workers, with a focus on paramedics.

Among the 117,500 full-time workers in emergency services in Australia, 42 per cent work rotating shifts and 20 per cent report poor quality sleep.

Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health sleep researcher Dr Alexander Wolkow has been awarded funding through the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award program, which is administered by the Australian Research Council.

Emergency workers are critical to the functioning of our society because they provide care and assistance to those in need.

“For emergency workers, effective decision making within teams of personnel is vital to the delivery of essential and often lifesaving services to the public,” Dr Wolkow said.

“Emergency workers are required to make critical decisions that affect the health and safety of the public, as well as themselves and their co-workers during each shift they work.”

Prior studies have shown that sleep deprivation can result in slower reaction times, poorer attention levels and memory and riskier decisions.

Dr Wolkow said the research would be focused on designing and implementing a simulated shift schedule that closely reflects the work conditions of paramedics.

“Throughout the simulated shift schedule, participants will complete multiple 60-min simulated emergency tasks, which vary in terms of the severity of illness and injury to the patient,” Dr Wolkow said.

“During each task, performance is recorded and evaluated by an experienced paramedic assessor.”

Dr Wolkow said the research would help to protect emergency services workers and make their workplaces safer.

“The research will provide evidence of the impact of shift work on emergency workers’ stress responses, decision making and workplace performance,” Dr Wolkow said.

“These results have strong potential to inform future strategies designed to enhance workplace performance and reduce risks associated with the demands of shift work, which in turn, will enhance public safety and minimise workplace accidents for emergency workers.”