Yawning really is contagious – but not always from watching someone else do it. Forty million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders, according to Mercy Sleep Center. If untreated, those disorders could lead to a variety of health issues or premature aging, as well as decreased productivity.
According to the Mayo Clinic’s research on adult health, proper sleep improves work performance by helping the mind and body recover from each day’s work, mentally and physically.
“During the rapid eye movement – REM – stage of sleep, your brain sorts the important information from the unimportant and files long-term memory,” the Mayo Clinic’s website says. “If this stage of your sleep cycle is shortchanged, your mental focus and acuity may decrease.”
Susan Clark, sleep systems manager at CoxHealth Sleep Disorder Center, said she’s seen what the lack of sleep can do to an employee. The biggest challenge, she said, tends to be for shift workers and night positions – including hospital workers, flight operators, police officers and firefighters.
According to the Sleep Disorders Center at East Alabama Medical Center, 17 percent of U.S. employees work shifts that require employees to stay awake when their biological clock is telling them it’s time for bed.
“Most of these people have children,” Clark said. “So as soon as they come off a 12-hour night shift, they try to shift back into a daytime person.”
Christie Dover, Mercy Sleep Center supervisor, said abrupt changes from day to night shifts aren’t ideal for employees’ rest.
But more important is the number of hours clocked in bed.
“A lot of times, adults just are not sleeping enough. Most get five or six hours a night, instead of the seven to nine hours they need,” Dover said. “There are 24 hours in a day to get everything done. And, if people can’t get it all done, most will cut back on sleep.”
Most of the patients at CoxHealth Sleep Disorder Center, Clark said, come in for fatigue, daytime sleepiness and falling asleep at inappropriate times or places. For others, it could be a breathing disorder that keeps them up at night. Either way, their energy is limited for daily tasks.
“Any employer is going to tell you that those who are sleep deprived decrease in productivity,” Clark said. “If a shift is not agreeing with people, that can affect memory loss, increase in tardiness, healthy perception and emotional well-being.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, lack of sleep impacts more than just the tired employee – the rest of the staff can tell a difference, too.
NSF says there are about five main effects of fatigue in the workplace: impaired reaction time, judgement and vision; trouble with information processing and the short-term memory; poorer performance, vigilance and motivation; a tendency for moody or aggressive behavior; and a bigger chance of “microsleeps” – those two- or three-second sleep episodes.
And a tired employee can be costly. The NSF estimates, each year, fatigued workers cost U.S. businesses $150 billion for absences, accidents at work and lack of productivity.
Sleep banking, or catching up on lost hours of sleep during free time, Dover said, can be useful to feel energized for the workweek ahead.
“Nap isn’t a bad word,” Dover said. “Sometimes sleeping in or getting a few extra hours, like on weekends, can rejuvenate.”
According to the 2000 NSF Sleep in America Poll, those fatigued employees reported their biggest struggles during sleep-deprived shifts are poor concentration, being late to work, not showing up, falling asleep on the job and more frequent errors or injuries.
A well-rested staff is crucial for efficient supervisors, too.
“The first thing we will do is act as an investigator, we investigate their sleep,” Clark said. “We use wires on their head that track brainwaves when they go to bed, so we know when they’re sleeping and when they’re not. We monitor their breathing, heart rate and oxygen levels at night.”
That data allows a physician to diagnose why the patient isn’t sleeping. And, frequently, the patient has to face their bad sleeping habits or stress levels, which means moving work, the TV and food out of the bedroom.
“This is when the patient will look at good sleep hygiene,” Clark said. “If you’re sleeping with the TV or your pet in the room, it’s time to get those things out when you sleep. Turn all the lights off, turn your alarm clock around if you have to, unplug all those blue and red lights.”
Taking the time to disengage from your electronics, Clark said, is critical for sleep hygiene. But so is disengaging from other distractions, and removing all stressors from the room – even a cell phone, if necessary.
“Real alarm clocks are helpful,” Dover said. “And better than keeping a cell phone around to use as an alarm clock.”
Additionally, avoiding large amounts of, or spicy, food within two or three hours of going to bed helps with getting comfortable. Nicotine too close to sleep likely leads to poor sleep, as does exercise, which ups the body’s temperature.
“It helps to sleep in a cool, dark room,” Dover said. “And block out traffic, conversations, yard work. Your body does register those sounds.”
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