With a schedule full of meetings, deadlines, business trips, e-mails to answer and the phone ringing off the hook, you barely have enough time for family and friends—let alone sleep. However, according to recent studies, if the average person does not get between seven and nine hours of shut-eye each night, work performance will suffer in more ways than one.
According to SLEEP, a scientific journal published by the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLP, approximately 50-70 million people complain about a lack of nighttime sleep and nighttime sleep associated with daytime impairment. Insomnia, commonly defined as difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, is costing the U.S. workforce $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity, according to a study in the September 1 issue of SLEEP.
In addition, the insomnia and workers study released this year estimates annual insomnia-related workplace costs due to excess sickness, absence, reduced work productivity and workplace accidents/injuries in the U.S. civilian workforce range between $15 billion and $92 billion.
According to Dr. James Wyatt, director of Sleep Disorder Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center, the majority of Americans don’t even come close to getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
“Millions of Americans are not even aware that they may have a sleep disorder. It is very typical that the majority of Americans are sleep-deprived,” says Dr. Wyatt.
The American Sleep Association reports that at least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders each year, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems. The most common sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine further reports that if you are feeling drowsy during the day, even during what may seem to be boring activities, you have not had enough sleep. If you routinely fall asleep within five minutes of lying down, you are also most likely suffering from severe sleep deprivation or even a sleep disorder. Snoring, getting up in the middle of the night or tossing and turning at night may also be signs of a sleep disorder.
“It takes anywhere from five to 20 years before they get diagnosed for sleep disorders, says Dr. Hrayr Attarian, associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “For a sleep disorder such as apnea, people are diagnosed within five to six years, and for people who have narcolepsy, it takes 16 to 17 years for them to get diagnosed.”
Being sleep deprived affects work performance in a number of ways, including lack of focus on safety, the efficiency of workers and increased impairment of workers concerning social interaction and on a worker’s immune system. Concerning the efficiency of workers, Dr. Wyatt says that workers will take longer to process information and to perform mental and physical tasks. Also, they may have to repeat tasks because of errors they have made. That is, of course, under the assumption that the sleep-deprived make it to work safely. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths each year.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a study has also shown that people who were awake for up to 19 hours scored substantially worse on performance and alertness than those who were legally intoxicated.
“They [employers] don’t realize the consequences of sleep deprivation because sleep is still a taboo topic,” says Dr. Attarian. “People are getting fired for falling asleep at work, but do people get fired for things such as having a stroke? Sleepiness is seen as a sign of laziness, which is a huge misconception.”
There are many factors that lead to sleep deprivation, including biological and economical factors. For example, consuming nicotine or too much caffeine can inhibit a good night’s sleep. Also, especially in today’s economy, many are worried about possibly losing their jobs, which may lead to overworking themselves and not allowing enough time to sleep. Dr. Attarian reports that about 80 percent of full-time workers are not getting enough sleep.
If someone does not get the required amount of sleep or loses sleep, a “sleep debt” will start to accrue. In order to repay your sleep debt, depending on how much sleep debt there is, it could take many days to weeks to catch up for those who are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. Many try to catch up on their sleep over the weekend. However, Dr. Wyatt explains that you most likely will not gain it all back by Sunday. For every two-and-a-half hours of sleep debt a person carries, one hour of sleep needs to be repaid.
Carrying a sleep debt has downsides than just affecting your work performance. According to another issue of SLEEP, those who regularly sleep only five hours a night have more than twice the risk of developing heart disease than those who regularly sleep seven hours. Too much sleep isn’t good either, according to the same study which found that exceeding nine hours a night increases heart risks by nearly 60 percent. Other serious diseases attributed to being sleep deprived are obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, heart attack and stroke.
Dr. Wyatt reports that some industries are realizing the importance of sleep and the dangers of not getting enough of it. For instance, in September 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed a landmark Notice if Proposed Rulemaking which would allow pilots more rest and give airlines the flexibility to integrate fatigue science into their scheduling practices. This proposal was followed by the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February 2009.
Although sleep disorders or sleep deprivation is common, there are various treatments depending on the diagnosis. According to Dr. Wyatt, an eight-week cognitive treatment is more cost effective in the long-run than taking sleep medications; however, the first step is to be aware that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. Treatment can be as simple as allowing for more sleep each night to repay sleep debt. Free sleep education seminars are also available and can be held at the work place to educate employees about sleep disorders and the importance of a good night’s sleep. A few companies even have “nap rooms” for employees to de-stress and rejuvenate themselves.
“There are companies that institute nap time for 30 to 40 minutes and their employees have been more efficient in the afternoon. More should have it,” says Dr. Attarian.
Dr. Attarian suggests that some kind of sleep program would improve productivity in the workplace. Depending on the company, workers such as truck drivers and pilots should be screened more frequently through a questionnaire and then be referred to a physician to be properly diagnosed if necessary.
All things considered, the sleep deprived nation is not doing itself any favors staying up later at night and waking up early in the morning, only to be functioning at a percentage of one’s full working ability both mentally and physically. By getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, you are helping decrease health risks and safety risks at work, and increasing your work performance. There are many advertisements on television emphasizing staying up late, going out late and working late reports Dr. Attarian which is why time for sleep suffers.
“With education I think it [sleep deprivation] can improve, but it still is a big challenge to drive home the message that sleep is important,” says Dr. Attarian.