How sleep deprivation affects work performance
The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2003 the average U.S. male slept 8.48 hours in a 24-hour period. The average U.S. female slept 8.65 hours. While both averages surpass the recommended eight hours for adults, recent studies indicate that the vast majority of people are sleeping far less than these averages and not getting enough sleep to maintain optimal health and peak productivity.
The National Sleep Foundation's 2005 Sleep in America Pollshowed that, overall, U.S. adults are sleeping an average 6.9 hours a night, including both weekday and weekend sleep. Forty percent reported sleeping less than seven hours on weekdays, and 71 percent are sleeping less than eight hours on weekdays. The number of hours spent sleeping on both weekdays and weekends is trending downward.
A WebMD.com articlelisted the following short-term consequences associated with sleep deprivation:
- Sleep deprivation induces significant reductions in performance and alertness. Reducing your nighttime sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for just one night could result in a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32 percent.
- Decreased alertness and excessive daytime sleepiness impair your memory and your cognitive ability—your ability to think and process information.
- Disruption of a bed partner's sleep due to a sleep disorder may cause significant problems for the relationship (for example, separate bedrooms, conflicts, and moodiness).
- You may experience a poor quality of life. For example, you might be unable to participate in certain activities that require sustained attention, like going to the movies, seeing your child in a school play, or watching a favorite TV show.
- Excessive sleepiness also contributes to a greater than twofold higher risk of sustaining an occupational injury.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates conservatively that each year drowsy drivers are responsible for at least 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries, and 1,550 fatalities.
In the long term, untreated sleep disorders are associated with many serious illnesses, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Psychiatric problems, including depression and other mood disorders
- Mental impairment
- Fetal and childhood growth retardation
- Injury from accidents
- Disruption of bed partner's sleep quality
- Poor quality of life
The American Sleep Disorders Association (ASDA) recognizes more than 85 sleep disorders that affect more than 70 million U.S. residents. Up to one-third of U.S. inhabitants have symptoms of insomnia; however, less than 10 percent of those are identified by primary care physicians. Sleep-related breathing disorders represent abnormalities that range from simple snoring to sleep apnea (repeated episodes of cessation of breathing during sleep).As highly prevalent as they are, most cases remain undiagnosed and untreated.
The Sleep-deprived Employee
Clearly, sleep deprivation causes serious problems in both personal life and the workplace. It often is cited as a primary or secondary cause of industrial and motor vehicle accidents. It also has been cited as a reason for unscheduled absenteeism, which is at a five-year high.
Sleep deprivation negatively affects work performance—productivity and quality—and working relationships. Without adequate sleep, employees have more difficulty concentrating, learning, and communicating. Memory lapses increase. Problem-solving abilities decline. Sleep-deprived employees can be moody and less tolerant of co-workers' differing opinions, making them more prone to reactionary outbursts and other relationship-destroying behaviors. Work relationship problems impact the entire organization. They contribute to inefficiency and job dissatisfaction.
Work and relationship problems increase stress levels, which in turn exacerbate sleep problems. Combine sleep problems, added stress, and the anxiety sleep deprivation sufferers feel as they approach bedtime—will I have trouble falling asleep; will I sleep through the night; will I get enough sleep—and the situation can appear hopeless. It's not. Once diagnosed, most sleep disorders can be corrected.
Determining Your Risk
Although many sleep-deprived people are very much aware that they have sleep problems, some aren't. Some believe they can get by and function at a high level on very little sleep, which is the exception rather than the rule. Answering the following questions compiled from various sleeping quizzes can help you determine if you're getting enough sleep or if you may have a sleep disorder:
- Do you often watch the late show because you can't fall asleep? Or do you frequently wake up during the night and can't go back to sleep?
- Are you often cranky? Or do you have trouble thinking at work?
- Are you experiencing a lot of stress in your life?
- Do you snore?
- Are you sleepy during the day?
- Are you overweight?
- Do you wake up with morning headaches?
- Do you have high blood pressure?
- Do you find it hard to stay awake while driving, watching TV, reading a book, or attending a meeting?
- Do you ever wake up choking, gasping for air, or have a skipping or rapid heartbeat during the night?
- Has anyone watched you sleep and told you that you hold your breath, snort, and often move during sleep?
Answering yes to two or more questions can indicate a possible sleep disorder.
Improving Your Sleep
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF)recommends that you document your sleep in its Interactive Sleep Diary. Completing this diary each day for one or two weeks will help you identify patterns or conditions that might be preventing you from getting enough sleep. The diary also can help you articulate just what is happening with your sleep should you decide to consult a physician or sleep disorder specialist.
The organization also offers the following tips to help you improve your sleep:
- Maintain a regular bed and wake time schedule, including weekends.
- Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine, such as soaking in a hot bath or hot tub and then reading a book or listening to soothing music.
- Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool.
- Sleep on a comfortable, supportive mattress and comfortable pillows. Make sure they are allergen-free.
- Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex.
- Finish eating at least two to three hours before your regular bedtime.
- Exercise regularly. It is best to complete your workout at least a few hours before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine—coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate—close to bedtime.
- Avoid nicotine—cigarettes and other tobacco products—close to bedtime.
- Avoid alcohol close to bedtime. Although many people think of alcohol as a sedative, it actually disrupts sleep, causing nighttime awakenings.
Leaving stress at the office also can help improve sleep. One way to do this is to write down the next day's to-do list at the end of each workday and then put the items out of your mind until you return to work. Easier said than done, but succeeding can help alleviate stress.
If following these guidelines doesn't help, it's wise to consult a physician or sleep disorder specialist. You may have a disorder that can be treated. Sleep apnea victims may be given devices that help keep their air passages open during sleep. In some cases, an operation may be in order.
If medication is prescribed, use it only as directed. Some sleep medications can be addicting, and it's possible to build up tolerances, rendering them ineffective after prolonged use. Make sure to ask the physician about side effects and if going off the medication might result in withdrawal symptoms. The goal is to achieve optimum sleep without medication—not to rely on sleep medication long-term.