If you’re nodding off during meetings, yawning at your desk, or your thoughts are foggy throughout the day, it won’t surprise you to hear that sleepiness can drastically affect your work performance. When you’re drowsy, your brain is not as creative and won’t process information as quickly or retain important facts as well.
We know from large-scale studies of the U.S. population that many of us don’t get proper sleep and feel tired throughout the day. A lot of people show up to work drowsy and say they turn in sub-par work performances on a regular basis. A 2008 Sleep in America® poll found that 29 percent of people said they had fallen asleep or became very sleepy at work in the previous month, and 12 percent were late to work in the last month because of sleepiness. More than one fourth of workers said that daytime sleepiness interferes with their daily activities at least a few days each month. The workers who seem to be hardest hit are those who either have extended or irregular work hours (more than 50 hours per week) or juggle multiple jobs (including shift workers).
In that same NSF poll of sleep habits and the workplace, even though people said they needed an average of 7 hours 18 minutes of sleep per night to be at their best the next workday, they reported an average of 6 hours and 40 minutes. The vast majority of people say they just “accept it and keep going” when they’re sleepy at work. And it’s important to remember that even modest amounts of sleep loss can accumulate over time so that a few nights of poor sleep can have a major impact on daily functioning.
Sleep is often the first thing to give up when life gets busy with heavy workloads, irregular work schedules, school, and parenting responsibilities. All of these normal, but increasingly time-consuming realities tend to crowd out the time and peace of mind needed for healthy sleep. Sleep may move to the bottom of our list of priorities. For many people, the boundaries between work and home life also become blurry. People spend an average of 4.5 hours doing work at home each week, with 20 percent spending 10 or more hours working at home. This could represent a cycle in which people are less productive at work because they’re tired, so they bring work home, only to have it interfere with their sleep.
One of the professions where sleepiness makes an obvious (and sometimes dangerous) dent in work performance is the medical field. Researchers have studied the extended hours of medical professionals and found that losing sleep has a big impact on their work quality. For example, when on-call residents work overnight, they have twice as many attention failures, commit 36 percent more serious medical errors and report 300 percent more medical errors that lead to death than those who work a 16-hour shift. In one study, researchers capped the workweek of medical school interns at 80 hours and found that these interns had less than half the rate of failures in attention than did the interns who worked more than 80 hours.