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Lack of sleep in the workplace

[Source: Peter Baer] [Source: Peter Baer]

Sleep is not only essential for biological functions; it also significantly improves mental performance, learning ability and mood (According to Peet Vermaak, neurophysiologist at the Pretoria Sleep Lab.)

Ironic really, when you consider that the modern man or woman who relies on optimal mental performance more than ever before only sleeps an average of seven hours - compared to nine hours 100 years ago.

Lack of sleep in the workplace is not normally a life and death situation. Unfortunately on occasion it does claim lives in large scale disasters directly attributed to mistakes made from lack of sleep. Take the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl for example. Investigators ruled that sleep deprivation was a significant factor contributing to the disaster, according to harvard.edu.

Lack of sleep in hospitals

Medical workers are another significant case in point. Medical advances means that humans have the potential for much longer and more comfortable lives - helping them pull through premature birth, beat cancer and maintain a certain quality of life while living with HIV. However, in order for such medical advances to take place, doctors and surgeons need to work longer and harder, trying to stay alert on little or no sleep at times - this again has its costs.  According to the Institutes of Medicine, more than one million injuries and between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths each year in the USA result from mistakes which could have been prevented. While it is unclear how many of these are directly the result of insufficient sleep, when you consider that many doctors often work 36 hours shifts, it would appear to be a major factor. In fact, according to Health 24, 17 sleepless hours result in the same lack of judgement someone displays after two glasses of wine which is over the legal blood alcohol limit for driving.

A debt that needs to be repaid

The research isn’t only US-based. According to an advocate of people spending sufficient time in their beds, Cape Town based Doctor Frans Hugo, a sleep debt can actually build up that needs to be repaid. While everyone’s basal sleep needs differ slightly, if a worker is only sleeping five hours a night when they need 8 hours sleep, by the end of the week they have 21 hours of sleep that they effectively need to catch up on in order to perform optimally. It would be difficult for anyone to spend their entire weekend sleeping but according to Dr Hugo’s research, this is what may be necessary for people with sleep debt to restore their mental fitness.

In fact, getting too little sleep might be almost as detrimental to mental awareness as getting no sleep whatsoever. “For anyone who gets six hours of sleep or less, they have the same cognitive thinking skills as someone that stayed awake for 48 hours”, said Doctor Robert Oexman, the director of the Sleep to Live Institute in the USA.

The effect of sleep deprivation in the office

The effect of the lack of sleep on mental performance and mood cannot be overemphasised, and is not limited to dangerous jobs. Many career-driven office workers feel that by burning the midnight oil, they will be more successful than their colleagues. According to an article published in Forbes, this is a complete fallacy.  “Unfortunately [people] think if they work more hours they will be able to get ahead of people who chose to work less and sleep more”, said Doctor Oexman. “We now know that this is not true.  People who choose to sleep will perform better athletically, socially, and in business”.

What can be done?

While many people control their own bad sleeping habits, when certain careers require long hours, it is essential for working shifts to be regulated. A study completed in 2004 by the Harvard Medical School concluded that the number of medical errors could be reduced by 36 percent by limiting an individual doctor’s work shifts to 16 hours.

On an individual basis, people need to practice good sleeping habits - catching up on sleep debt during the afternoons and weekends where they can, and not drinking stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol after 6pm. Instead, replace these with sleep-promoting food and drinks, such as bananas, complex carbohydrates, dairy and chamomile tea. 


By: Frances Bailey at WSI Internet Marketing

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