Are You (or Your Employees) in Sleep Debt? Here Are the Telltale Signs

03 May 2019

Your eyes are grainy and it feels like you're moving in slow motion. Yes, those are sleep deprivation signs you're experiencing, and if you are like the majority of Americans, this has become a normal part of life. However, the research shows that the side effects of sleep deprivation are more than just "being tired." This affects your work, your life and even your brain's operating capacity.

While doctors recommend a minimum of seven to eight hours of rest a night, one sleep study by Fitbit found that men get about six hours and 26 minutes of sleep while women fare slightly better with six hours and 50 minutes per night. This means that the average person is chronically sleep-deprived, or in sleep debt.

The good news is the damage isn't permanent. Improving sleep routines can improve the areas listed above. However, as everyone knows, it's not as easy as it sounds. Below you will find some insights on practical ideas to improve sleep outcomes, reduce side effects and live a more rested life.

Sleep Debt and Sleep Deprivation Signs

Lack of focus and memory is a prime example of the side effects of sleep deprivation. According to WebMD, the running list of sleep deprivation signals include things like:

  • Decreased alertness and reaction time
  • Memory impairment
  • Increased stress

While these are broad, imagine their applications in a work context. For example:

  • Alertness: Mary is supposed to remove items from the conveyor belt but keeps missing them because she is too fatigued to concentrate.
  • Memory: Jeremy missed two deadlines because he keeps forgetting to file the report, even though he talked about it with his boss.
  • Stress: Isha is lashing out at her coworkers, even though historically she has not had attitude issues at work.

This is a reminder that sleep deprivation is not just a problem for the sleep deprived: It's a problem for everyone that works with and around them as well.

Practical Ideas for Reducing Sleep Deprivation

The good news is that the solution for sleep deprivation, assuming there are no medical issues like sleep apnea involved, is fairly straightforward: Get more and better-quality sleep.

In a previous analysis of a sleep study on upstartHR, I highlighted the fact that one of the best things we can do is prioritize bedtime consistency. The data shows that people with less consistency around their specific bedtime sleep less than those who make bedtime consistency a priority. In other words, getting to bed at approximately the same time every night, even if you're not getting your full eight hours, is better than varying your bedtime every night.

The Work Wellness and Disability Prevention Institute actually offers a fairly comprehensive set of suggestions for improving sleep as part of a broader wellness plan. For instance, WWDPI recommends avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bedtime, as each can interfere with the brain's ability to rest. Additionally, while exercise is valuable for helping to improve sleep, it's best to do this earlier in the day as late workouts can elevate the heart rate, making it more difficult to sleep.

Finally, one of the most practical ideas is to keep the phones, tablets and other devices out of bed. The blue light emitted by these devices can mimic sunlight, encouraging the brain to stay active even when it should be shutting down for the night.

As an employer, one of the first steps is educating workers on the impacts of sleep deprivation. Helping them to understand how a lack of rest affects their work and their broader lives can help to spur them into action. Additionally, offering insights about how to make the most of sleep time can help them to get better quality rest, improving their performance, memory and even their mood.