You’re sleepy at work for whatever reason, and you’re suffering. Whether you partied too hard, a baby kept you up half the night or it’s simply post-lunch drowsiness, you’re a zombie who’s expected to still get things done until you can punch out for the day.

Sleepiness and its cognitive effects have been issues for every worker since work began, but organizations are starting to take sleepiness and its effect on the bottom line seriously. A better understanding of just what drowsiness can do to your brain, how to combat it and what to realistically expect from your employer might help ease the pain on those days when you just want to use your keyboard for a pillow.

Shouldn’t a person’s sleep levels just affect them and their work? How can it affect an organization as a whole?

Each person’s sleep can affect their mood, vigilance and performance. This will impact their work performance and how they interact with people at work. For this reason, the larger organization is impacted in the long run, according to June J. Pilcher, Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Clemson University Department of Psychology.

Pilcher’s research background focuses on the effects of stress on individuals, and her previous work has examined how physical activity, sleep and the environment affect health and well-being. Although she said it is well established that quantity and quality of sleep can affect different types of task performance and personal health, the interactions between sleep habits and organizational behaviors have received much less attention.

June J. Pilcher stands in front of the Class of '39 bell in the Carillon Garden after receiving the Class of '39 Award for Excellence.

June J. Pilcher stands in front of the Class of ’39 bell in the Carillon Garden.
Image Credit: Craig Mahaffey

You’re sleepy at work. What do you do?

Caffeine can work, according to Pilcher, but people should remember that it takes 20 minutes for the mild stimulation to take effect. Timing depends on how much food is in the stomach or being digested. Pilcher recommends caffeine mints for a more immediate effect.

“Let them dissolve in the mouth,” Pilcher said. “The caffeine is absorbed through the mucosa and is more directly absorbed into the blood stream.”

For a non-caffeine option, Pilcher recommends walking around for 10 to 15 minutes, preferably outside. Another option is a short nap or “rest period.” The length of the nap depends on the person. For most people, a 10-minute period where we either relax in a chair or lie down on the floor can be surprisingly alerting and calming. Most people will not go to sleep, but the chance for the brain and body to relax can provide a needed boost. Pilcher recommends setting an alarm to get back on task lest a supervisor discover a strategic nap turning into full-on sleep.

What’s more important when it comes to work performance: sleep quantity or sleep quality?

Both sleep quantity and sleep quality are important when considering how sleep impacts daily functioning. Both can independently vary based on sleep habits and the presence of health issues or clinical sleep disorders. Pilcher says the priority all ultimately depends on quantity you’re regularly getting.

“In adults who are sleeping about seven hours a night, sleep quality is probably more important,” Pilcher said, “but in adults who are consistently sleeping six hours or less a night, sleep quantity is probably more important.”

What can organizations and workplaces do to encourage good sleeping habits?

sleep deprivation research

One of Pilcher’s students, Dylan Erikson (left), presents research on the relationship between sleep, exercise and body-mass index on college students at the 2019 Association of Psychological Science convention in Washington, D.C.
Image Credit: June Pilcher

Lack of sleep is a major problem, especially in work requiring a high level of vigilance, such as long-haul truck driving or in an air traffic control room. In the health care industry, many studies have found that sleep deprivation and sleepiness result in an increased likelihood of medical-related errors. According to Pilcher, excessive daytime sleepiness has been found to predict drug administration errors and incorrect operation of medical equipment.

Organizations should, whenever possible, help workers become more aware of their “sleep-habit” choices and the impact on their work. If a human resources department can equip their employees with this information, it might help them make healthier choices related to sleep.

“The most important thing is for people to learn to prioritize good sleep habits,” Pilcher said. “Work settings should provide regular breaks for workers to rest quietly with eyes closed if needed. Some organizations even provide napping rooms.”

Could organizations start screening for how well a person handles working while sleepy?

“I think it could be helpful to do this for shift workers, but it would be difficult to do in a reliable fashion,” Pilcher said. “Of course, there are down sides of doing this. For example, it is relatively easy to change our sleep habits if we want to. It could be problematic to use a one-time sleep or sleepiness measure as a job-screening or job-skills measure. That’s a tough one!”

Shift work is a whole different animal. What can a person do to normalize sleep on a “rollercoaster” schedule?

Many industries require shift work, but in almost every case, it’s not ideal for people. The best thing a person can do is stabilize sleep patterns for the days that they are on shifts and try to keep the same sleep patterns or times for that particular shift.

This approach is not a problem for evening shifts that may end around midnight since most people will go home and go to bed. However, for night shift workers, it is harder to stay on a regular sleep schedule. Pilcher said the best thing a person can do in that case is to imitate a day shift at night.

“It is best to sleep later in the day if they can and then get up shortly prior to going to work so that they have less time awake prior to their work period,” Pilcher said. “Creating a stable sleep pattern is what everyone should do, so I think the 9-to-5 schedule is about as good as we can get.”

But aren’t all individuals different?

sleep deprivation research

One of Pilcher’s students presents research on the effects of bright light exposure on sleep deprived students at the 2019 Association of Psychological Science convention in Washington, D.C.
Image Credit: June Pilcher

Although most organizational research assumes a degree of homogeneity to the working population, individual differences can affect how the working environment impacts the employee. Factors such as gender and age contribute to differences in sleep quantity and quality in addition to general well-being in workers.

Studies of employee health and well-being have shown that women shift workers have an increased risk of poor sleep quantity and quality compared to their male counterparts. This includes difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and a higher likelihood to use sleep medications to compensate for poor sleep.

Age is a primary predictor of sleep behavior, and sleep patterns continually shift through adulthood. With age comes a decrease in the amount of deep sleep, generally associated with poorer cognitive performance, and an increase in the number of awakenings during the night, which is linked to less sleep quantity and poorer sleep quality.

While each person falls on the spectrum of “morningness” and “eveningness,” Pilcher said it all boils down to how humans evolved to sleep and normally engage in activity.

“I think that work during the daytime is best because it better matches our natural circadian rhythm to sleep at night and be awake and functioning during the day,” Pilcher said.

To read Pilcher’s research article on sleep and organizational behavior, click here.

The Department of Psychology is part of Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in July 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – communication; nursing; parks, recreation and tourism management; political science; psychology; public health sciences; sociology, anthropology and criminal justice – to further its mission of “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.

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