Strategies for a sleep-deprived workday

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Chances are half of your colleagues at work are desperate for a nap. Many adults don’t get enough sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation, the problem particularly ”acute” among younger workers: one in three struggle to get out of bed each morning.

What’s keeping them up at night? Not work worries. Marie Gagnon, 24, is a regular at Rumor, a nightclub in Boston. Though she’s employed in a 9-to-5 job at an insurance company, she can’t imagine staying home every weeknight: ”I don’t want to be bored,” she says. ”I love the energy of Rumor.”

What time does it get rolling? Midnight. Gagnon says clubgoers with jobs go home at 2 a.m. and the college kids stay later. Maybe they’d all get to bed earlier if they knew that research shows lack of sleep can make you dumb and fat.

Those who get fewer than six hours of sleep a night might as well be drunk. The Sleep Foundation determined that people who remain awake for 18 hours straight function similar to drinkers with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, the level states use to determine whether someone is legally impaired to operate a car.

And, when you don’t get enough sleep your brain starts thinking it needs to store food, according to Eve Van Cauter, a researcher at the University of Chicago. Leptin, a hormone that helps regulate hunger and body fat, drops from lack of sleep, triggering hunger.

What to do about sleepiness? The most obvious solution is to change your lifestyle. ”I used to try to go out every night in college,” says Gagnon, ”but now that I’m in the real world, I’ve cut back.” Her job as a claims representative starts at 9 a.m. She says as long as she’s home by 2 a.m., she can get to work on time. This leaves her short of sleep — most people need seven hours a night. To compensate, Gagnon sometimes puts in longer hours and drinks coffee — ”five or six cups at a minimum.”

But this is a risky strategy; after so much caffeine, the body’s response to the stimulating effects of coffee can become dulled. Which is why even after six cups, she still feels a slump in the afternoon: ”I usually have to go in early the next day or stay later to manage my workload.”

Sleep researchers advocate alternatives to Gagnon’s strategy. ”A bright light will keep you awake,” says Daniel Kripke, professor of psychiatry at University of California San Diego. For those of you in the light bulb market, look for ”a bright white or bluish light. Fluorescent without ultraviolet.” Administer the light to yourself in the morning, when it is most effective in the battle against sleepiness. But ”it probably has some benefits if you use it later in the day, too,” he says.

Napping works. However, napping is considered an office disruption, so you might have to book a windowless conference room to get away with this one. But a nap is well worth the risk. It will rescue your lagging performance, according to Sara Mednick, sleep researcher at the Salk Institute.

Mednick currently is studying two groups of people in her lab. Those in one group do not get a nap, and their performances decreased as the day progresses. The other group napped and their performance not only did not go down, but it sometimes goes up after the nap. Mednick, not surprisingly, is gung-ho for naps, and in fact, she says, you can actually train yourself to be the kind of napper who can shut your eyes for 10 minutes and wake up refreshed.

”You only need to practice for a couple of weeks,” says Mednick. Alas, the chronic under-sleeper probably does not have the discipline to nap efficiently and so risks waking up feeling more tired than before.

Luckily, there’s the caffeine nap. Caffeine can clear your body of the chemical adenosine, which makes us want to sleep. Researchers at the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England were investigating ways to prevent drivers from falling asleep at the wheel and causing car crashes. They found that the best way to regain alertness if you feel like you’re falling asleep is to chug a cup of coffee and then immediately take a 15-minute nap. The idea is to get the sleep in before the caffeine takes effect. So you have to start napping right after that cup of coffee — or a can of caffeinated soda — goes down. Not a bad solution, but certainly not long term.

The only long-term solution is to get a regular seven hours of sleep. So among all this research, the advice that stands out as the best is from Kripke: ”If you don’t like how you feel the next day, then don’t stay up too late.”

11 replies
  1. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    I wish that companies had the good sense to institute siesta policies. Even though I, an admitted eccentric who actually does sometimes work at a homemade treadmill desk in the office, recognize the value of napping, keep a sleeping pad under my desk, and don’t have to worry about job advancement or pay raises, there is something so powerful about the stigma of sleeping on the job that I’ve only napped at the office perhaps 2-3 times in my career (though I have gone home to nap more often than that).

    And if I’m reluctant to nap, I can only imagine the pressure that others feel to conform!

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I expect that in the coming years, many companies will begin to experiment with offering nap opportunities.

    As talented workers become more scarce and expensive, it will be important to maximize their productivity on the job. If 20 minute naps will do that, many companies will go for it.

    There is a company now offering “nap pods” in a couple downtowns and at the Vancouver airport. I think you pay for each 15 minutes. Perhaps these will be installed in some office buildings and work places and workers will be able to book a cat nap (and if you only have 15 or 20 minutes before the next person’s turn, you couldn’t oversleep).

  3. Sleepy
    Sleepy says:

    This is so confusing.

    All the articles in the world tell you how all the great, successful achievers get up early. No one gets up after 5:30 or 6 in the world of high-powered executives, and we are encouraged to emulate this. I am trying desperately for an extra half-hour in the morning myself.

    But in order to get enough sleep, I’d have to be in bed, lights out, by 10pm. I find it hard to believe that any of these industry leaders are home much before 8 or 9pm. So that means that they are probably not getting more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep.

    Why doesn’t someone ever ask these people how much sleep they get?

    * * * * * * * *

    Charles Czeiler wrote in the Harverd Business Review that it it unethical for executives to go with so little sleep becuase it puts so many people at risk for their sleep-deprived bahavior. Here’s where I blogged about this:


  4. richard
    richard says:

    your sleep artical reminded me of a time when i used to run small ships out of the republic of panama, we had been caught in very hard weather for over two days, it was so rough that the secound hand in my wrist watch was bent. for two days we watched a semi tanker trailer pound a hole in the deck big enough that you could drop a small car through. there was just one chain on the inbord side that did not break and allow it to go over the side held vy the four unbroken outbord chains,it would have beaten the sides of the vessel out and we would have gone down. needless to say by the time we got to the panama canall we were short of sleep, we needed to go through the canal to the carabian side before we shut down. on the way through there was a dredging barge that is over a block long and three stories high, light up like las vegas, that no one in the bridge saw, we all were standing there looking right at it as the ship closed in on it and no one saw it until we were right upon it. we went to full power astern and watched it dissapear under the bow. we must have missed hitting it by less than a few feet. we were awake, but asleep at the same time. i think lack of sleep is worse than being drunk.

  5. mitch
    mitch says:

    all this – and yet we ask our medical professionals to work at least 12 hour shifts (in the US)… sometimes ask them to do double shifts as well.

  6. Teresa Ables
    Teresa Ables says:

    I haven’t slept much in 4 nights(5 hrs maybe) and no naps in the day time. My husband won’t allow it. I have panic disorder and agoraphobia (no meds) and I feel horrible. What can I do?

  7. Brady Bagwan
    Brady Bagwan says:

    Don’t try to do too much. Prioritize. Delegate. For those that don't have a staff, who do you delegate to? One way to overcome this is to use a personal assistant service. I just started a company called Delegate Source based in Denver. While there are quite a few concierge services out there, there are very few who approach lifestyle and household management broadly. It really is simple math. If a professional’s hourly cost is more than the cost of outsourcing personal services, why not achieve a better work/life balance by delegating errands and tasks?

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