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Asleep on the Job: When to Discipline, When to Accommodate
New assignments, schedules may be needed for those with medical conditions

By Dana Wilkie  4/16/2014
 

Two or three times a week, you find him in a break room chair, catching some Zs—and not just during the lunch hour.

Maybe his naps are interfering with deadlines or meetings. Perhaps they don’t affect his work, but you’re wondering if you should say or do something.

When an employee sleeps on the job, a manager’s first task is to ascertain the reason for the fatigue: Is the worker hung over because of late-night partying or a second job? Is he suffering from a medical condition such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea? Does she use prescribed drugs or undergo medical procedures that leave her tired? Is he suffering unusual stress or anxiety that makes it hard to sleep?  Perhaps life events—like a newborn—mean the worker is pulling all-nighters.

“Talk to the employee and find the reason behind them sleeping on the job,” said Laura Anderson, a human resources supervisor at Reno, Nev.-based EE Technologies, an electronics manufacturing company. “Offer suggestions to help, and remind the employee that sleeping on the job is unacceptable and what the consequences will be.”

Once a manager has identified the reason for the sleepiness, the next task is deciding how best to address it—whether that means discipline, support for the worker or something else.

Discipline

Before disciplining the employee, managers should ask themselves if the sleeping is an isolated offense or habitual.
For instance, it will take most people a few days to adjust to the loss of one hour of sleep following daylight saving time changes, according to a 2009 study by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

Managers should also ask themselves how serious the potential or real repercussions were because the employee nodded off. There’s a difference between a recruiter who sleeps on the job at her desk and an anesthesiologist who nods off during an operation. In the first case, the recruiter might need reprimanding. But an anesthesiologist’s patient might have been harmed, and harsher action is probably warranted in that situation.

If it appears that the “employee is hung over, or up playing music all night, and cannot stay awake at work, it’s the employee’s poor planning that put them in that situation,” Anderson said.

“It is not the employer’s responsibility to make allowances for [that] poor planning,” she said. “The employer is not paying for the employee to sleep. Workers should be disciplined for sleeping on the job for all cases unless they have a condition that is considered a disability that is protected by state and federal laws.”

Medical conditions

Nearly 50 million Americans suffer from sleep problems and disorders that affect their careers, their personal relationships and their safety, the NSF reports.

Narcolepsy (a disorder caused by the brain's inability to regulate sleep cycles) and sleep apnea (a breathing disorder that interrupts sleep patterns) are two conditions that might contribute to someone being fatigued.  These and other conditions—sleepwalking, insomnia—may be considered disabilities and protected by state and federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which would require an employer to make reasonable accommodations for the worker’s condition.

“I expect there is no cookie-cutter answer on how to accommodate an employee with narcolepsy,” said Anderson, who acknowledged that it can be difficult for managers in a manufacturing environment to be flexible with workers who have sleep disorders. “The employer and the employee can explore creative ways to meet both parties’ needs.”

Many medical conditions can also make sleeping difficult.  They include asthma, fibromyalgia, epilepsy and even attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Anderson suggested that if an employee with a sleep disorder or medical condition routinely nods off in meetings, managers may want to let him or her record the gatherings and fill in the gaps later.  While the employee may not finish work in the same manner as others, he or she might be able to produce the same results.

Another approach is to offer the worker a shift that better accommodates his sleep patterns.

An employee taking prescription drugs that cause fatigue might want to take a temporary reassignment until she’s finished her medication.

In all cases, Anderson said, employees known to sleep or become drowsy on the job shouldn’t be around heavy or dangerous machinery and shouldn’t be driving. 

Chronic Sleepiness

According to a 2008 poll by the NSF, prolonged workdays that extend into the night may cause Americans to fall asleep at work. Americans spent about 4.5 hours each week doing additional work from home, on top of an average 9.5 hour workday, the poll found.

Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said they were very likely to work through their fatigue while on the job, while nearly one-third were very likely to use caffeinated beverages to stay alert. But 29 percent of respondents reported falling asleep or becoming very sleepy at work during the month before the survey. Another 12 percent were late to work because of sleepiness.

Some courts have weighed in on workers who sued companies that fired them for sleeping on the job.

Sidney Riddle, a manufacturing engineer for a lighting company, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia that made it hard to sleep. Riddle, who sometimes fell asleep on the job, told the company about his condition and was given a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) option allowing him to call in on days he felt too tired to work or to return home after telling his supervisor he felt sleep-deprived. But shortly after the accommodation was approved, Riddle’s manager fired him after finding Riddle asleep at his work station.

Riddle sued the company under the ADA, claiming it violated the law by failing to accommodate him. In August 2013, a federal court in Virginia ruled that Riddle had stated a good initial claim under the ADA but also found that because Riddle had never called in sick or asked permission to go home, he did not state a good FMLA claim.

In February 2014, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a former employee at an Illinois packing company—who was fired after repeatedly falling asleep on the job—was let go after the company knew she had an ADA-covered medical condition that caused her sleepiness. The court also ruled that the company failed to engage in an interactive process with the employee to find a reasonable accommodation.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Links:

Va.: Employee Fired for Sleeping at Work Has ADA Claim (August 2013)

Sleepless in Seattle . . . and Cincinnati and Syracuse (October 2012)

Employer on Notice of Employee’s Medical Condition Should Proceed Cautiously (February 2014)

Daylight Saving Time Change May Increase Workplace Injuries (February 2013)

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