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Sleep Deprivation’s Impact on Safety with Ahna De Vena

Sleep Deprivation's Impact on Safety



Having trouble sleeping or not getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality can affect judgment and mental health, potentially increase the risk of accidents or injuries, and have a negative impact on safety and job performance. In this episode, Ahna shares the importance of quality sleep to improve workplace safety and energize your team. Adequate and quality sleep is a must to keep ourselves and those around us safe. Tune in to learn how you can begin the journey of prioritizing restorative sleep!


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me, Ahna De Vena. She’s a sleep expert and consultant, has been in this space for well over 20 years, and has worked across many different industries as well as in her not-for-profit work. And the quote on our website that really caught my attention, was from sleepless to sleep, superstar. Anna, welcome to the show. A really important topic to talk about is sleep tiredness has so many impacts on safety and well-being so maybe why don’t you start out by sharing a little bit about your journey in the sleep space and we’ll take it from there?

It’s great to be here, thank you for having me. I would say that my journey began as a sleepless teenager in my early 20s as a result of lack of sleep for over eleven years I had a breakdown mental and physical and ended up collapsing in public I was taken to hospital and diagnosed with some quiet serious autoimmune conditions, and I did a big review of my life and realized things needed to change. When I was offered meds and told I’d have to take them for the rest of my life I said no and decided that I really wanted to learn how to recover from the sleeplessness that I had endured and just live a really healthy life because I could still remember back to when I was younger and was able to sleep very well and I just knew that I could get back there. And so, I changed course and studied natural medicine mainly for my own knowledge and my own recovery. And after applying that for a few years I fully recovered and then decided I really wanted to help others with this issue where there was very little help at that time. And so, I started in schools because for me when I looked back I thought wow, we’re meant to spend one-third of our lives asleep and yet I didn’t receive any sleep education and that’s the primary reason I got into such difficulty. And so, I decided I wanted to be part of changing that in the world. And I began working with kids and teenagers first, which I did for years, and then adults asked me if I could run courses for them, and then I started working with one-on-one clients more and more and very successful private practices throughout the world. So, I’ve lived in quite a few different places. And essentially the work that I do now for groups, I do still work with people one on one, and I’ve got some products and then I work with groups is really a distillation of all the work I’ve done with individuals over the past 20 odd years. And it’s just very takeaway orientated so people can elicit change immediately. And that’s what I’m about. I can have a five-minute conversation with someone at the grocery store and just tune in and give them that little bit of knowledge they need to make a shift. And so, one of my biggest messages is we all have a natural ability to sleep well. When we can tap into that and support that, then we can shift so much and literally change our entire life. Because when we change our sleep, we change our health, we change our outlook, we change our relationships, our productivity, everything. And so that’s, for me, a very important message for people to get. But it’s not rocket science. But we’re very much out of sync now. We’re in a global sleep loss epidemic. It’s worth every year. So, we really need to be focusing on this.

Definitely. We hear more and more about the impact of sleep. And when we think about in the safety space, there are a lot of safety implications if you’ve got some sleep deficit. I’m thinking also about a lot of the work that people are doing that has high risk and involves shifts, which also has its own impact on sleep and there’s also an impact on executives. Can you maybe share a little bit about the importance of sleep and how we can impact safety, performance, and culture overall?

Well, I think one of the easiest ways to look at it is that when we lose sleep when we don’t get the amount of sleep we need, we’re essentially acting in the same way as when we’re drunk. And so, we have very slow reflexes. Our brain doesn’t make good decisions. All our executive functions are impaired. And we become dysfunctional on so many levels. So being tired, in a way, isn’t the worst thing. It’s really our ability to respond, to recognize where we are fully and what’s needed from us on all levels. So, if you’re operating machinery when I lived in New Zealand, I lived at a port in Nelson and I worked with a lot of men who worked at the port and there were accidents because they couldn’t respond, or they were driving machinery and didn’t drive the machinery well enough. I had one guy who was in charge of a large room full of machinery, and he said to me when he came to me for help, he said, someone almost died a few weeks ago. No, because I was so fatigued I couldn’t see how dangerous the situation was.

And I was supposed to be overseeing all the workings in this room, I think on every level from the person operating the machinery to the people overseeing any kind of environment where there’s dangerous equipment being run. There are a lot of risks and then there are risks, say, for the CEO running a company who can’t keep that long-term vision and perspective when he’s making decisions today. And McKinsey did a study involving 1900 individuals across 91 companies and they found that sleep-deprived brains lose the ability to make accurate judgments which then leads to irrational and unjustified claims and I’m quoting here, such as I don’t need sleep, I’m doing fine with just a few hours of sleep. And so, what happens is the brain is so dysfunctional that the sleepless person can’t even realize they’re sleep deprived, and I think their lives are one of the greatest dangers of sleep deprivation.

Interesting, and the other element is if I think about a lot of higher-risk roles, there are a lot of shifts. People maybe are working through the night, maybe they’re alternating from day shifts to night shifts. How does that impact somebody’s ability to rest and to really recover through sleep?

So, shift workers really have the worst end of the stick in many ways. Matthew Walker talks about it a fair bit. They’re at much higher risk of dying than anyone because their body clock and their brains are just so scrambled, you could say. And I have worked with many shift workers, and I’m appalled at the lack of consideration for basic human needs. Honestly, I’m shocked. And then people like nurses and doctors who are performing surgeries or procedures that are potentially life-threatening and having to make decisions that really impact people and they do not have the cognitive ability and even the physical coordination to be able to function properly. To me, this is one of the most kinds of disappointing and astounding aspects of society really, that we’re not protecting people more and particularly shift workers. Like there are very simple things that they could do for shift workers, which I know quite a few companies are starting to do now. But keeping the same shift for a week rather than doing three different shifts in a week allows the body to at least get some rest in a rhythmical manner. Whereas if you’re doing three different kinds of shifts in a week, it’s almost impossible to get the rest that you need to function properly.

But if you are diligent and you are very careful about how you manage the time your downtime, then you can at least get deep rest. And I think that deep rest isn’t respected enough, and people think if I’m not asleep then it’s a waste of time. But, if we know and train ourselves to rest deeply, that can then turn into sleep. But deep rest is extremely valuable. Back to your question. Shift workers need to learn the skills needed to switch off quickly more than anyone else on the planet. They really need that because their downtime is so precious and so they don’t have the luxury of hours of agitation that they can’t they just don’t have it. They’ve got to be back at work in X number of hours. So, they need to understand how to support their bodies down out of high stress, which is where everybody, and when I say everybody is I mean our bodies go into very high stress and high inflammation when we’re sleep deprived. So, it’s just so critical that shift workers know how to bring that inflammation down and how to bring the stress hormones down and then come into a state of deep rest where sleep is possible.

And you’ve got some other elements that are also mixing into it. For example, maybe their rest time is when the sun starts coming up and all the lights are up, and activity noise is higher because that’s when most people are active. So, you’ve got all sorts of things I’m even thinking about airline crews that are flying all sorts of different hours’ time zones. Jet lag all these pieces really require they mentioned some degree of awareness training in terms of tactics and then.

Carry a kit with them where they can make a room they can rest in because if we just go willy-nilly without being prepared then we could lose that time that we could be sleeping. Where are a pair of earplugs, an eye mask, and some tape? Tape is something that I tell everyone who’s sleeping in hotel rooms or unfamiliar places that they should take some black tape. It doesn’t leave marks on things. So, they can black out the room or cover over bright light shining down on them or out of the wall. Yeah. So just those three things can make a massive difference when you’re traveling and then also knowing how to manage time zones and how to prepare for travel but obviously, that’s a bit different. But although shift workers sometimes are traveling over time zone fly and fly out people.

So, it gets a good segue into getting into a little bit of the elements that an organization can do in teams of bringing sleep as part of a wellness or safety program. What are some of the best practices that you’ve seen in this space?

I think that the first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that sleep and work aren’t separate. I think for too long companies have thought of sleep as something outside of any realm that they need to address which, having worked with thousands of people the impact that work has on someone’s sleep. I’ve seen first-hand the number of people who can’t get to sleep who lie there thinking, worrying, or problem-solving in the middle of the night for their job because they’re so committed or they’re so stressed or they’re just so impacted by their work or inspired. I’ve had quite a lot of clients who are just overly inspired to the point where they can’t sleep. So, it’s not always a negative.


So, I think companies need to acknowledge that sleep is impacted by work, and work is impacted by sleep length and quality hugely. If their employees are turning up tired, it’s costing them in many ways. And Deloitte Access Economics did a study combined with the Australian Sleep Foundation and the final report was aptly named Asleep on the Job. And they quantified the cost of insufficient sleep in Australia, and this was in 2016 to 2017 and just the productivity loss of productivity costs Australia 18 billion a year. So that’s huge. So, if we think about it, what sleeplessness is costing us professionally and personally, it’s just hard to quantify really, because if you’re living your days feeling exhausted, unable to be present, afraid of making a mistake, or even just making mistakes that have a serious impact, then that’s not really living. So, I think there needs to be a shift in how people view sleep, and any company that wants to help their employees well then needs to come right up to the top of priorities. Because traditionally diet and exercise and weight loss are areas that wellness programs have covered, and sleep has a massive impact on all three of those areas.

If you don’t get sufficient sleep, your diet just goes out the window. You actually don’t have control over what you eat because all the peptides that control appetite are just completely thrown, and you put on weight, and exercise can be detrimental. When we haven’t had sufficient sleep, if we do it in a way that elevates our stress, for instance, or if we do it at the wrong time of day, or it just doesn’t get done at all because we’re so tired, sleep needs to be the foundation of a wellness program. That’s my opinion after so many years working in this industry and its time and I feel that people are starting to wake up to this fact. I’m very grateful for Matthew Walker who’s written the fantastic book Why We Sleep. That’s a great read for anyone because we all sleep. I just want a little warning there for people who read it to be aware that you might become absolutely terrified of not getting enough sleep when you read it because he goes into all the nitty-gritty of what happens to our bodies and our minds when we don’t get the sleep we need.

Definitely, something to read to provoke thinking in that space.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety, and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at

In a wellness program. It sounds like there are elements around teaching people the importance of sleep. Correct me if I’m wrong, but also have some strategies around how to get better sleep and maybe recognize signs of fatigue. Are those the types of themes that typically are covered?

Yes. I think that people need to understand why sleep is important and not just getting sufficient sleep, but sufficient quality sleep. There’s too much emphasis put on the length of sleep we’re getting and not enough at all on the quality of sleep we’re getting. And if we flip that around and focus on getting quality sleep then we will naturally get the length of sleep we need. And that’s something people need to become more aware of you can sleep seven to 8 hours and still wake up tired. In fact, when I do my pre-course survey, about 60% of participants report that they were getting around 7 hours of sleep but still waking up tired. And so, this is part of the epidemic that we’re now in that people might be in bed for that time, perhaps asleep, but the amount of quality sleep they’re getting, the amount of deep sleep they’re getting is way lower than what they need to truly rejuvenate while they’re sleeping.

Interesting. It makes me think that there’s also a need for awareness at the boardroom level in terms of decision-making because there are impacts that the organization creates that have an impact on safety around. We talked about before shifts and shift patterns. The other thing that comes to mind is overtime, which can be a delicate balance because sometimes overtime can be very high remuneration for the employee, and they see it as an encroachment. But if you’re working 18 hours a day or 24 hours a day and getting minimal rest and recovery, it strikes me that in high-risk role, that’s incredibly dangerous actually probably in any role, not just in a high-risk role.

Yes, it is. And I’ve seen a lot of people compromising their health and their well-being and their capacity to perform at an optimum level, taking shifts, doing overtime, or just saying yes because they’re afraid of losing their job. If they say no, that’s something that happens. There’s bullying. People know that they shouldn’t take it, but they’re afraid to say no or they’re afraid not to do it for fear of losing their job. So, in terms of a company culture that needs to be interwoven so that people aren’t afraid, that people are able to really take stock of how they are and make a decision that reflects their ability, not oh God, I better say yes because otherwise, my job is at risk. Sure, that kind of company culture is beyond toxic. That kind of thing just so needs to change.

And I’ve seen it even at a crew level. So, there’s corporate culture and then there can also be team dynamics that create that need to be in check where somebody’s like just do the extra or just push a little bit harder or something like that, that can also be toxic. 

Yeah. And if you’ve got a leader of your team who’s doing over many extra hours and kind of creating this we don’t need sleep, I don’t need sleep. So, you shouldn’t need sleep, what’s wrong with you? Type thing wearing a badge almost of being a hero for operating on very little sleep. That’s extremely dangerous. And just on that note, there is a small percentage of the population, 3% of the population have a gene that makes it possible for them to function normally on 6 hours of sleep. And so, if you’ve got them as a team leader, if you got one of them as a team leader, that’s a scary position to be in because then you start trying to exist on the same amount of sleep as one of these people.


If you look at burnout now and the prevalence of burnout now compared to even just ten years ago, it’s so much more prevalent. And I think since covert our stress levels are so much higher and there is a direct link to high stress and lack of sleep and those they feed each other. So generally, lack of sleep will start occurring due to some kind of height and stress. And then if we don’t have the skills and the ability to get out of that cycle, then one just feeds the other. Lack of sleep feeds the high stress. The high stress leads to more lack of sleep and then it just goes on and on and-on-and people feel they can’t get out, but they also just start to think of it as normal. And that’s something I try to tell people. It’s not normal. Even though it feels normal, even though you think you don’t have a problem, there actually is an issue here that needs addressing. And so that’s one of the hardest things to get people to recognize there is a problem and it needs addressing.

And I think that’s where the need for as well the organization to bring this at the forefront from a safety standpoint, from a wellness standpoint becomes really important.


So let’s pivot to some of the strategies to improve sleep. You shared one around when you’re traveling to have some tape to be able to make sure the room is dark. What are some of the strategies that you teach in your programs to help somebody become a better master at sleep?

Well, the first thing is to see sleep as a must-have instead of a nice-to-have. So, I think people don’t have enough of a healthy perspective on how important quality sleep is. And I would say that the first thing needs to be an acknowledgment of how important it is because once you have that, then you can start connecting with why you want to get great sleep.


And of course, those two things are kind of interconnected. But unless we have a strong connection to why. We want to get great sleep. Win the battle with the creature of habit that makes us do the same thing over and over and over again and continue getting mediocre or poor sleep already. Is anyone listening to this? The creature of habit inside you is standing on guard and saying. None of this stuff is going to work for me. Whatever she says, it’s not going to work, or I don’t want to do that even before I speak. And so, you’ve got to be aware that this battle has already started and will be there for a month. As you incorporate new patterns of behavior, even a new mindset, you have to battle. And in order to begin to win that battle, you’ve got to have a why. And I say to people, how do you want to feel when you wake up in the morning? And how do you want to feel as you engage with the people in your life, the people you love, how you are able to perform at work and how you’re able to contribute in the world?

How do you want to feel? And so, when you can get in touch with that and then come to a place of saying, you know what? I want to be fully alive. I want my brain to work as well as it can work. I want super brain powers and I want endless energy. And I want the ability to be patient and to be able to listen and to be able to communicate clearly, to be able to keep a long-term perspective. When I’m making decisions for myself, for my family, for my colleagues, and for my company, we have to really have a strong why in order to make any changes. So that would be my first suggestion. The second suggestion is around your relationship with light. We have a segment of our brain called the super charismatic nucleus. And this part of our brain actually regulates our sleep-wake cycle. And the main environmental cues that trigger the sleep-wake cycle are light and temperature. And so, when we are exposed to full spectrum light, that signal from the environment is read through brain cells that are in our eyes called Retinal ganglion cells. And those brain cells in our eyes send a signal to the super charismatic nucleus and say, hey, it’s time to wake up.

And then the super charismatic nucleus says to the adrenal cortex, start making cortisol. Cortisol isn’t just a stress hormone, it’s an energy hormone. And also, is a regulating hormone. It’s an activating hormone. It’s actually very good for us in the white quantities at the right time. So, we need this signal of light. We also need to increase our body temperature to switch on in the morning and then in the evening, we need the signal of darkness, which is also read by these retinal ganglion cells. And these signals are sent to the SCN, okay, stop making cortisol and start making melatonin. Darkness is the best sleeping pill. I’m going to repeat that. Darkness is the best and really the only sleeping pill. We should use long-term signals to our bodies to start making the hormones that we need to get good quality sleep. And this is true for people of all ages and children. All humans need darkness and then coolness the opposite to morning coolness. The body needs to cool down in order to sleep well. So overheated rooms or overheated beds are just going to make you frustrated, and your body won’t be able to fall asleep.

So, if everyone follows this advice, everyone’s quality and length of sleep would improve. And it’s simple, but it’s tricky because we’re living in a time where our evenings are polluted by artificial light. Now, the amount of sleep we’ve gotten globally has declined since artificial light started polluting our evenings. In 1942, the average sleep adults got on the planet was 7.9 hours a night. Now it’s 6.5 and decreasing every year. The last time that was measured was actually discovered. So, in the surveys, I’m doing, my estimate is it’s down to six already as an average. And we need 7.5 to 9 hours, depending on who we are, the average is around eight. To be well mentally and physically, children and teenagers need much more than that. 90% of teenagers are sleep deprived. This is a problem that is yet to be acknowledged and yet to be addressed. I plan on addressing it in the next few years with my sleep kit for teens. I’ve already got a sleep kit for kids. But yeah, everything I’m saying applies to people of all ages.

Interesting, these are all techniques that people can easily implement, and I think it also links back to what you’re talking about. The tip when you’re traveling is to make sure you’ve got a dark environment, is there something as well about when you’re talking about artificial light? People are watching TV more and more using their computers, which from everything I’ve read, stimulates and also counteracts what we’re trying to do in the hours before sleep.

Yeah, so as I said when we get the opposite cue to what the body needs, so the body needs darkness. And when we have this very bright light being read by these brain cells in our eyes, these retinal ganglion cells, they’re getting the opposite signal to what they need. And so, it confuses everything, and it inhibits the production of melatonin, which melatonin should start being produced quite a while before we go to sleep. Whereas people are taking their phones to bed, right, and they’re sending this light signal. And so, one of the things people say to me when they come to me for help, they say, I just don’t get tired at night. I just don’t get tired. I don’t feel sleepy. I said, well, what are you doing? And so, it’s always something that involves light, whether it’s a screen, generally, it’s a screen. But we need to understand what’s happening physiologically. Not just our screens aren’t good for us, but understand that when you’re doing that, but understand that when you’re doing that, that you are confusing your body and messing with your body chemistry. And so, when you do eventually get to sleep, it’s light sleep.

And yes, there are some things you can do. You can wear good quality blue light-blocking glasses. One of the things that I suggest is setting an electronic sundown time and having that be something that everyone in the house adheres to so that parents are setting an example. So, you have a box, and all the phones get put into the box. Anyone letting a teenager or child take their phone or device into their bedroom, yeah, it’s one of the most disastrous and unloving things that a parent can do. That sounds very judgmental, but it’s true because it’s interrupting their development at such a deep level. And it’s just like sending an alcoholic into a room with a bottle of scotch. They don’t have control and they’re severely addicted, so they’ll tell you they’re not on it, but I can tell you they are interesting.

So, you do a lot of programs for organizations. You coach, work, and people with people one on one. If somebody is interested in learning more, how can they get in touch with you?

Great. So, through my website. Sleep well and thrive. Or you can just contact me through LinkedIn Ahna De Vena. They’re the two best places to get in touch with me. And you can read about my corporate programs on my website. And there are lots of testimonials from different companies that have worked with me, and there’s lots of information there.

Excellent. Thank you very much for joining me today. I think it’s an important topic and definitely one that’s been top of mind with the pandemic. Lots of articles have talked about this, but I think it’s important for organizations to, as you propose, really look at it seriously in terms of their wellness programs, their safety programs, looking at their decision-making, how different decisions around shifts, around overtime, can impact restful sleep, but also provide tools for team members around this. So, thank you so much for coming to share your thoughts on this.

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the path. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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Ahna De Vena has been a pioneer in the sleep-improvement field for 20+ years. She has extensive experience working with individuals and organisations throughout the world and her corporate program is changing thousands of lives every year. Ahna has developed a unique approach to sleep improvement and stress reduction from observation in her clinical practice and created effective products including a Sleep Cd that was featured on Qantas inflight entertainment for 4 years and a Sleep Kit for Kids that has already helped thousands of kids and families throughout Australia. She’s also the founder of the Sleep & Dream Foundation—a charity that supports children and families who’ve experienced trauma to sleep well and heal.

You can learn more about Ahna’s corporate sleep improvement program or 1:1 sleep recovery package by visiting her website: or by emailing her directly: [email protected]



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