The average hours worked by full-time employees have increased since the late 1970s; the traditional 8-hour day/38-hour workweek is now a myth.  The rise of shift work, call centres, technology and the ‘desire to succeed’ at any cost has impacted on many individuals’ health and well-being.  Today’s modern 24/7 society has created ‘sleep-deprived workaholics’.  The pursuit of financial gain is leading to one’s own ‘sleep debt’.

Lack of sleep, resulting in exhaustion, is one of the most serious health-related problems in the workplace.  It has also been shown that sleep deprivation is a major cause of under-productivity, absenteeism and workplace accidents.  According to the report “Asleep on the Job”,  completed by Deloitte Access Economics (2017) for the Sleep Health Foundation, productivity losses amount to $17.9 billion or $2,418 per person with inadequate sleep.  The United States loses an equivalent of 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep, or approximately 9.9 working hours (RAND, 2016).

Tired employees can experience more difficulty in concentrating on what they are doing, listening to what others are saying, solving problems on the job, making decisions and increased challenges relating to their co-workers.  Staying awake for 24 hours can lead to reduced eye-hand coordination which is similar to having a blood alcohol content level of 0.1.  Research has repeatedly demonstrated that doctors working 24-hour shifts, 80-hour working weeks and sleep deprivation have reaction times worse than people with blood-alcohol levels over .05 percent. 

The physical effects of sleep loss on the individual are also rapid and serious.  Chronic sleep loss may speed the onset or increase the severity of age-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and memory loss.  Backaches and joint pain are the most common pain symptoms accompanied by sleeplessness.

Though individual sleep requirements vary depending on age, physical activity levels, and general health, sleep experts recommend at least 8 hours of sleep a night in order to function properly.  Unfortunately, sleep is viewed as expendable and many people believe in the myth that sleep is something you can ‘catch up’ on over the weekend or on holiday.  This continuous lack of sleep just increases one’s ‘sleep debt’.

Stress, either personal or work-related, is a major cause of short-term sleeping difficulties.  Other causes of sleep deprivation include illness, frequent travel between time zones, personal choice (i.e., prefer to go to bed late), sleep disorders, medications, the sleep environment, poor sleep hygiene (e.g., drinking coffee before bedtime), and newborn children in the household.  People who experience sleep deprivation have stated it affects their overall health, their work life, their ability to pursue personal interests, and their relationships with family and friends. 

Losing just two hours of sleep can cause the following:

  • Reduced alertness
  • Shortened attention span
  • Slower than normal reaction time
  • Poorer judgement and memory
  • Reduced concentration and work efficiency
  • Loss of motivation
  • Errors of omission (forgetting to do something)
  • Errors of commission (making a mistake choosing the wrong option)
  • Microsleeps

Few managers are aware of the symptoms displayed by a sleep-deprived employee.  By being able to identify signs and symptoms of sleep debt, productivity may increase while injuries decrease on the job.  Some signs include constant yawning, tendency to dose off at meetings or at the workstation, grogginess when waking in the morning, poor concentration and mood changes.

In today’s sleep deprived society, workplace wellness programs must offer educational seminars on sleep and relaxation techniques.  Some innovative workplaces have dedicated ‘sleeping’ or ‘napping’ rooms as an intervention for employees.  Studies that show that ‘power-naps’ can restore short-term alertness and enhance both concentration and memory.  For example, Google has sleep pods in its offices as well as Zappos. 

Until managers and executives understand and realise the impact that ‘sleep debt’ can lead to financial debt, workplaces will be susceptible to increase injury, decreased overall well-being, and decreased productivity.