01:30pm Tuesday 28 January 2020

Two million Aussies are 'on call' while asleep, researchers to assess impact

CQUniversity Professor Sally Ferguson has secured $236,700 in Discovery Project funding from the Australian Research Council to progress the research titled Sleeping with one ear open: the impact on sleep and waking function.

She will collaborate with Professor Leon Lack (Flinders Uni) and Dr Brad Aisbett (Deakin Uni) to complete a laboratory study investigating the factors that may impact sleep while on-call. Factors to be studied include the likelihood of a phone call, the task importance, and the chance of missing a call.

Prof Ferguson says that, if on-call sleep proves to be less restorative than non on-call sleep, there is an unidentified vulnerability in Australia’s capacity to deliver critical services in health and emergency response.

Work arrangements may require modification to facilitate more sustainable on-call work.

Prof Ferguson is based at CQUniversity’s Appleton Institute in Adelaide. Her background is in circadian biology and understanding how the body clock helps keep us synchronised to the world around us, and what happens when we work against our clocks.

“Two-million Australians, including paid employees and volunteers, are on-call providing essential 24-hour services including emergency response,” Prof Ferguson says.

“While sleep during on-call periods is disrupted when a call occurs, some research suggests that sleeping with one ear open waiting for a call, may disrupt sleep even if no call occurs,” she says.

“If on-call sleep is less restorative, then individuals are at risk of performance impairment and adverse health outcomes.

“This project will answer questions about the magnitude of sleep disruption when on-call (but not actually called); the mechanisms for any disruption; and impact on waking function.

“While individuals may feel like they sleep with one ear open, we do not know whether sleep is actually disrupted by the expectation of a call, whether this disruption impairs waking performance, or the mechanisms involved.

“Increased anxiety is at the centre of the proposed mechanism of action for sleep disturbances.

“Despite the purported role of stress, the physiological stress response to on-call scenarios has not been studied.

“Further, if the severity of sleep disruption and stress response during a night on-call is unknown, then the risks to health and safety due to performance impairment are also unknown.

“We currently know a lot about what happens to performance at different sleep ‘doses’, but we don’t know if the level of sleep disruption that people experience when they are expecting a call actually impacts performance.”


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