Sleeping on the job

Sleeping at work may sound like a taboo but until recently, it was actually considered the norm by many businesses. For example, police officers in New York regularly took power naps during their shifts until very recently, and in Japan, it is seen as total dedication to work if you are sleeping on the job. In fact, the Japanese use the term inemuri to describe sleeping at work, which means ‘present whilst sleeping’.

Unfortunately sleeping on the job isn’t looked on as favourably in most Western countries such as the UK. Falling asleep at work can lead to disciplinary action due to the negative impact that it can have on a business. But what should you do if you catch your employee sleeping during working hours?

In this article, we’ll talk you through some of the possible reasons that an employee might be sleeping on the job, as well as explaining what your next steps should be.  

What Should You Do If An Employee Falls Asleep At Work?

If you catch an employee falling asleep at work, you may understandably feel annoyed that they are wasting company time. However, it’s important to take a step back and establish the reason for them falling asleep before deciding on your next course of action.

You’ll need to approach the matter sensitively, bearing in mind that there may be an underlying cause that is not easy for the employee to talk about. For example, there may be an underlying medical condition at fault, or a problem at home.

Here are a few other things you should consider before deciding on your next steps:

  • Is this the first time the employee has fallen asleep at work or is it a regular occurrence?
  • What impact has this had on the business?
  • Does the employee have any health conditions?
  • Are your employees being given adequate rest breaks?

The final point is particularly significant. The 1998 Working Time Regulations dictate that you must provide your employees with at least the legal minimum of breaks. If you are not providing these breaks, you are breaching health and safety regulations and could be putting yourself at risk of being sued by your workers.

Once you’ve taken all relevant information into consideration, you’ll then be able to decide on the best way forward to deal with the situation. You’ll need to use discretion – an employee who is regularly falling asleep at work after nights out should be dealt with very differently to an employee who is struggling with a sleep disorder or has overnight caring responsibilities.  

Actions that you may decide to take after investigation and consideration include:

  • Offering additional support to the employee
  • Referring to occupational health
  • Providing a verbal or written warning
  • Taking disciplinary action
  • Terminating the contract of employment

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Consequences of falling asleep at work

Is Falling Asleep At Work A Disciplinary Matter?

Whether or not falling asleep at work is a disciplinary should depend on the individual circumstances. Whilst a business may decide to take disciplinary action against an employee who has fallen asleep at work multiple times after playing computer games all night, an employee who has caring responsibilities outside of work which impact their ability to sleep should be given more leniency.

You’ll need to consider whether the incident is a single isolated offence, or whether it is a habitual occurrence. This will help to indicate the likelihood of the issue reoccurring in the future.

It’s also important to reflect on the impact that the incident had on the business. For example, there is a big difference between a receptionist who falls asleep and misses a phone call and a surgeon who falls asleep in the middle of an operation. Whilst the receptionist may receive a written warning, the surgeon is likely to require harsher disciplinary action for the harm that may have been caused by the action.

Finally, you’ll also need to consider whether the employee has a medical condition that is impacting on their ability to stay awake at work or to sleep at night. It’s important to remember that disabilities are protected under law, so it’s best to consult with a HR professional before taking any disciplinary action against an employee who is struggling to stay awake as a result of a medical condition.

Medical Reasons For Falling Asleep At Work

There are a range of medical reasons why an employee may fall asleep at work. That’s why it’s so important to apply discretion when it comes to dealing with sleeping on the job. Let’s take a look at some of the medical conditions that could

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that is caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep cycles. This results in the person suddenly falling asleep at inappropriate times. One of the key symptoms of narcolepsy is extreme and overwhelming daytime tiredness, which may lead to your worker accidentally falling asleep whilst at work.

Sleep Apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a breathing disorder which leads to breathing stopping and starting during sleep. This interrupts sleep cycles, making it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. This leads to the person feeling excessively tired during the daytime and could make it difficult for a worker to stay awake at work after a particularly challenging night.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a chronic sleep disorder which affects up to 31% of adults in the UK. This condition leaves sufferers struggling to get to sleep and waking up frequently, leaving them still feeling tired in a morning. If your employee is suffering from insomnia, they may be excessively tired in a morning and have difficulties in staying awake at work.

Other Conditions That Make Sleep More Difficult

There are many other medical conditions that may make it more difficult for your employee to get a good night’s sleep, causing them to be tired at work. These include:

  • Asthma
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Epilepsy
  • ADHD
  • Chronic pain

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Managing An Employee With A Sleep Disorder

There’s no straightforward answer on how best to support an employee with a sleep disorder such as narcolepsy or sleep apnoea, as every case is different. It’s best to speak to the employee and encourage them to be open and honest about their condition, so that you can figure out the best way forward.

For example, if an employee takes medication in a morning that makes them drowsy, they could begin their working day later when the side effects of their medication have worn off. Alternatively, an employee suffering from sleep apnoea may be able to take a nap during their lunch break, extending their working hours to allow for a longer lunch break.

It’s important to note that an employee who is drowsy or falls asleep at work should not operate heavy machinery or drive for health and safety reasons.

What Action Can You Take Against Sleeping On Duty?

If an employee has fallen asleep at work without a medical reason, you might be wondering what you should do next. This will depend on whether it is the first time that the employee has fallen asleep, or whether it is a regular occurrence.

For a first offence with no significant detriment caused, a verbal or written warning should be sufficient. This warning should simply document the employee’s actions and warn them that disciplinary action may be taken should the incident reoccur in the future. This should be enough motivation for the employee to take measures to ensure that they do not fall asleep in the future.

For more significant cases, such as if the incident has put employees or customers at risk, or if the employee has already received a warning for the same behaviour in the past, you may need to consider more severe disciplinary action. This could include suspending the employee or terminating their contract of employment.

Whatever course of action you decide to take, you should ensure that you keep an accurate record of the employee’s behaviour, witnesses to the behaviour and any conversations that you have with the employee. This could act as evidence at an employment tribunal should the employee decide to take legal action later down the line.

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Staying awake at work

How To Support An Employee Who Struggles To Stay Awake At Work

If an employee has a medical condition, you are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to support them at work. However, if your worker does not have a medical condition but still struggles to stay awake at work, there are still simple ways in which you can support them, helping to promote motivation and minimise the risk of your employees falling to sleep at work. After all, it’s only natural that your workers will feel tired from time to time, especially if it’s been a busy working week.

Here are some tips to encourage your workforce to stay alert and awake at work.

  • A dark workplace can encourage your workers to feel drowsy. Ensure that your working environment is bright and airy with plenty of windows to help your workforce to remain awake and alert throughout the working day.
  • Encourage mental stimulation. For example, if workers are performing repetitive tasks, listening to music could help them to remain focused on the task and avoid drowsiness.
  • Dehydration is a common culprit of distraction. Provide plenty of water to keep your employees hydrated and you’ll notice the difference almost immediately.
  • Encourage physical activity during lunch breaks. This could be as simple as suggesting that your employees take a walk at lunch or putting a ping pong table in the canteen. You could also give a ‘walking meeting’ a try for your next team meeting!
  • Provide healthy snacks to give your staff a natural energy boost. Fruit and nuts are great options to increase energy levels and keep your employees motivated throughout the working day.
  • Ensure workers have a good work life balance so that they aren’t taking stress home with them by carefully monitoring workload. You can also consider flexible working or remote working to promote a better work life balance.

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Related Questions

Can You Get Fired For Falling Asleep At Work?

Depending on the circumstances, sleeping on the job could be considered as gross misconduct. This means that it could result in disciplinary action such as termination of contract, depending on the severity of the situation. For example, if a crane operator fell asleep whilst lifting a heavy load, this would be considered gross misconduct and suspension or termination of contract would be a likely course of action.

However, if an employee struggles to stay awake at work as a result of a medical condition or side effects of a prescribed medication, the employer should make reasonable adjustments to support the employee wherever possible. This could include altering shift patterns or making changes to the working environment.

Why Is It Bad To Sleep On The Job?

Firstly, during working hours, you are under contractual obligation to perform the tasks for which you have been employed. By sleeping during working hours, you are neglecting to perform your job role, thus breaking your contract of employment.

In certain professions, sleeping on the job could also put both yourself and others at risk. For example, if the carer of a vulnerable person fell asleep at work, the vulnerable person could be at risk during the time that their carer is asleep.

Need Advice On Dealing With An Employee Sleeping At Work?

If you’re unsure of how to deal with an employee who has been caught sleeping on the job and you’re looking for advice on the next steps to take, we’re here to help. At Neathouse Partners, we’re experts when it comes to HR and employment law and we’re with you every step of the way.

We can guide you through the process of dealing with an employee who has been sleeping at work, whether they have a medical condition that you need to make adjustments for or you’re looking to begin the disciplinary process.

Give us a call on 01224 893776 or contact us here for expert advice and support, whatever your HR needs.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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