Americans spend a lot of time at work. In addition to a workday that averages 9.5 hours, the 2008 Sleep in America Poll found that Americans are spending more than four extra hours working from home each week. Unfortunately, more work often equals less sleep. This same survey found that respondents’ sleep time was reduced by an hour and a half during workdays, compared to their sleep on non-work days.
While work schedules and stress can affect sleep, the opposite is true as well. If you’ve ever nodded off at your desk or during an important meeting, you know that sleep loss can have a detrimental impact on work performance. Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling tired, less creative, and make it more difficult to stay focused on important projects.
Sacrificing sleep for work, then working more to make up for lost productivity can become an exhausting cycle. Fortunately, understanding the links between sleep and job performance can empower people with the knowledge needed to end this pattern. Creating a boundary between work and home life can be challenging in the beginning, but it’s an important step towards both better sleep and more consistent job performance.
How Can Sleep Affect Work?
Sleep supports nearly every system in the body. When we fall asleep, our eyes close, our breathing slows, and our muscles gradually relax. Neurons in the brain switch to a sleeping state, beginning the innumerable biological processes that refresh our body and mind. The rejuvenation provided by sleep is vital for our cardiovascular and immune systems, as well as our ability to think clearly, learn new information, and manage our emotions.
It’s no secret that Americans are chronically underslept. While the National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults need around 7 to 9 hours of sleep, almost one-third of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep each night according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This fatigue inevitably bleeds into the workplace and a 2007 study of U.S. workers found that almost 38% of employees experienced fatigue while at work during the previous two weeks.
Trying to work while underslept can significantly impact job performance. Without enough sleep, processes throughout the body work suboptimally. Neurons in the brain become overworked, impairing thinking, slowing physical reactions, and leaving people feeling emotionally drained. These short-term side effects of sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on a day’s work. Chronic sleep deprivation can have even more drastic consequences, including an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, cognitive decline, and dementia.
The Effects of Sleep Loss
Sleep loss can make it more challenging to maintain focus, attention, and vigilance. Feeling drowsy and trying to stay awake takes a lot of mental energy, making it more difficult to stay focused on long tasks and those that require concentration. This decrease in focus may be related to the impact of microsleeps, which are momentary (0.5 to 15 second) episodes of non-responsiveness that cause lapses in attention.
People who are sleep deprived are also more likely to make errors and omissions, partially due to increased reaction times. This means that tired employees take more time to react in critical situations and may be more likely to make a mistake. In some professions, impaired reaction times may mean missing an important phone call or not responding quickly in conversation. In other professions- like doctors, first responders, and truck drivers- slow reaction times can be the difference between life and death.
Working while underslept can leave people feeling more irritable, angry, and vulnerable to stress. In stressful or negative situations emotional reactions are amplified, leading to overreacting at inappropriate times. Stress and irritability felt during the workday can then carry over into home life, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Over time, chronic sleep loss increases the risk of more serious mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, that can make being productive at work even more challenging.
The Economic Impact of Sleep Deprivation
Fatigue has a massive economic impact, costing employers billions of dollars a year. It’s estimated that reductions in productivity, motivation, and health care costs related to fatigue cost individual employers around $1,967 annually per employee. When these losses in productivity are added up, fatigue at work costs U.S. companies around $136.4 billion dollars a year.
Blurring the Line Between Work and Home
Increased connectivity has made it easier than ever to work outside of an office, often blurring the line between being at work and being at home. Without a sufficient boundary between work life and home life, people may sacrifice personal needs to complete more work tasks. In fact, research suggests that being able to psychologically detach from work after clocking out decreases the negative effects of work-related stress.
Many jobs blur the line between work life and home life, either due to high demands on employees or because of the nature of the work itself. Doctors, on-call workers, and work-from-home employees are often available by email, text, or instant message around the clock. Industrial workers, nurses, pilots, and other shift workers are often required to work at times that overlap with a normal sleep period, sometimes resulting in sleep disorders like shift work disorder.
Sleep deprivation can affect all employees and has even been linked to several infamous workplace accidents, including the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. Knowing the risks of sleep loss on job performance, it’s important for people in all fields to find ways to get consistent, quality sleep.
Improving Job Performance
If sleep loss is causing you to be excessively tired at work, it might be time to make some changes. Getting consistent, quality sleep can help you perform better at work, reduce your reaction time, and leave you feeling more motivated during the day. Here are a few tips to start improving your work performance by prioritizing your sleep.
- Reassess Your Priorities: It’s common to sacrifice sleep in order to finish work, watch television, or socialize. Consider the ways you justify staying up past your bedtime and ask yourself if these activities are really worth the side effects associated with sleep deprivation. If you’re regularly prioritizing other activities over sleep, maybe it’s time to reassess your priorities and create more of a boundary between work time and personal time.
- Find Some Wiggle Room: If your work schedule is causing you to lose sleep, it may be helpful to discuss this issue with your boss, your labor union, or your company’s human resources department. Research shows that allowing for psychological detachment after work hours and supporting employees’ needs for consistent sleep pays dividends by improving concentration and productivity during the workday.
- Be Realistic: Not everyone can change their work schedule and many people need to work shifts that conflict with their ideal sleep-wake cycle. If you can’t find any wiggle room in your work schedule, consider some tips to stay awake during night shifts.
- Improve Your sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene is all about fostering good habits that promote restful sleep. Make a personalized plan for optimizing your bedroom environment, nailing down a consistent sleep schedule, fine-tuning a bedtime routine, and eliminating any daytime habits that are making it more difficult to sleep.
- Talk to Your Doctor: Doctors and sleep specialists are experienced in helping people who are having sleep problems. Your doctor can help you create a plan for improving your sleep and offer personalized tips for managing work-related fatigue.
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