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May 12, 2010 | Volume 4 | Number 5
May 12, 2010
Health promotion initiatives are gaining popularity in the workplace in efforts to maximize employee health and well-being. These programs often emphasize exercise, nutrition, weight loss, and reducing substance use (e.g., smoking and alcohol) as the central points of intervention for improving employee health. Surprisingly, sleep gets little attention in these programs, if any at all. However, your sleep habits may ultimately be the source of your struggling job performance, strained professional and personal relationships, fading health, and work-life imbalance. Consider the following research on sleep that potentially affects your efforts to sustain each of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace practices:
Employee Involvement and Recognition: Your sleep habits may be decreasing your level of involvement at work and hindering your job performance (resulting in less recognition for your efforts). Sleep loss can lead to more exhaustion and detachment from work (Papp et al., 2004), which may hamper your ability to fully contribute to organizational activities. Even when you do engage at work, you are more likely to be unproductive without proper sleep. Insufficient sleep causes poorer decision making (Harrison & Horne, 2000) and performance on complex tasks that require logic/reasoning, reading comprehension, and knowledge extrapolation (Schmeichel, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2003). This loss of productivity is not only problematic on an individual level, but it can be exacerbated at the group or organizational level. In work situations requiring high interdependence or complementary areas of expertise among team members, just one or two sleep deprived individuals can undermine the whole group’s performance (Barnes & Hollenbeck, 2009). Thus, your sleep may be hindering the optimal performance you need to engage in your organizational initiatives and get the recognition you want.
Training and Development: Good sleep also has implications for training and professional development via its effects on learning. For example, sleep loss has been linked to decrements in professional development and relationships in medical students (Baldwin & Daugherty, 2004; Papp et al., 2004; Papp, Miller, Strohl, 2006) in addition to the frequency of making serious medical errors (Baldwin & Daugherty, 2004; Landrigan et al., 2004; Lockley et al., 2004). This is because insufficient sleep can decrease alertness and motivation for learning (Papp et al., 2004). Insufficient sleep also reduces your ability to retain the information you learn (Stickgold, James, & Hobson, 2000). Even more interesting, getting sufficient sleep after working on a challenging problem can facilitate insight into finding the appropriate solution (Wagner, Gais, Haider, Verleger, & Born, 2004). Consequently, your sleep could be contributing to difficulty learning new skills and strategies, as well as straining professional relationships with your supervisor, coworkers, and/or subordinates.
Health and Safety: Poor sleep habits also put your psychological and physical well-being at risk. Not getting enough sleep can make you more emotionally reactive to stressful events (Hamilton, Catley, Karlson, 2007; Zohar, Tzischinsky, Epstein, & Lavie, 2005), and negatively affects your overall mood and well-being (Hyyppa, Kronholm, & Mattlar, 1991; Manber, Bootzin, Acebo, Carskadon, 1996; Totterdell, Reynolds, Parkinson, & Briner, 1994). Inconsistent sleep (e.g., varying your bed times, wake times, and sleep duration) can also lead to poorer sleep quality and increased fatigue (Fuligni & Hardway, 2006; Manber, Bootzin, Acebo, & Carskadon, 1996). Even more importantly, modest sleep deprivation can also lead to dangerous dips in cognitive performance that may have serious safety consequences. For example, people who drive after being awake for 17-19 hours are poorer drivers than individuals over the legal alcohol limit (Williamson & Feyer, 2000). This means that going to work sleep-deprived is not much different than going to work drunk! Even more troubling, only minor variations in sleep can be associated with safety risks. When the time shifts for daylight saving time in the spring (resulting in a loss of one hour), fatal traffic accidents and workplace injuries tend to increase in comparison to the rest of the year (Barnes & Wagner, 2009; Varughese & Allen, 2001). Therefore, sufficient sleep is needed to ensure a safe work environment and healthy employees.
Work-Life Balance: If you are feeling overwhelmed by managing your demands at work and at home, you may want to re-think your sleep schedule. Sacrificing your sleep to meet work deadlines might seem like a good strategy, but the short-term payoff may not be worth the long-term costs to your health. When considering the way you choose to use your personal resources (such as time and energy; Grawitch, Barber, & Justice, 2010), your goal should be to (1) prioritize work and home demands according to your goals and then (2) optimally spend your time and energy to meeting those demands. Consistent with research on decision making and performance (Harrison & Horne, 2000; Schmeichel, et al., 2003), it becomes clear that sleep deprivation not only contributes to inefficiencies and errors in managing your resources, but it also saps you of the mental and emotional resources needed to cope with work-life demands (Hamilton et al. 2007; Zohar et al., 2005). Consistently getting a sufficient amount of sleep over just one week increases the energy we need to manage demands and reduces our feelings of being overwhelmed (Barber & Munz, 2010; Barber, Munz, Bagsby, & Powell, 2009). Next time you are tempted to stay up late to finish a project, consider how much more efficiently you could complete the task following a refreshing night of sleep rather than a full day of mental and physical depletion.
Prioritizing Healthy Sleep
Given the abundance of research linking sleep to various health and well-being outcomes, why do we (and wellness programs) take sleep for granted? The answer is that the negative consequences of sleep are often indirect and multi-faceted, leading individuals to mistake the symptoms of unhealthy sleep practices for the primary issues to be addressed (e.g., the “unhealthy sleeper” effect). This misattribution is common, given that sleep is often perceived as an outcome of stress and other health behaviors rather than an antecedent. For example, NIOSH’s WorkLife Initiative estimates the economic burden of the following occupational safety and health risks: illness and work injury, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, tobacco, and obesity. Sleep is not listed but could potentially be either an underlying causal or exacerbating factor for all of these risks, with the exception of cancer. Research has shown that sufficient sleep is needed to stabilize blood sugar levels to manage diabetes (Speigel, Knutson, Leproult, Tasali, & Cauter, 2005; Yaggi, Araujo, & McKinlay, 2006) and repair immune system functioning to reduce cardiovascular diseases and arthritis.
Healthy sleep is also vital to maintaining good nutrition and fitness routines. Sleep helps to replenish our “self-regulatory” energy that is required to control our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Vohs & Heatherton, 2000). Individuals who are depleted of self-regulatory energy are less able to restrain from unhealthy snacks (Segerstrom & Nes, 2007; Vohs & Heatherton) and to adhere to exercise routines (Hagger, Wood, Stiff, Chatzisarantis, 2009). Recent research also indicates that consistently getting a sufficient sleep over just one week improves self-regulatory performance (Barber & Munz, 2010). Without replenishing this energy through sleep, we may find ourselves unable to initiate healthy behaviors (e.g., going to the gym or cooking a healthy meal at home) or resist impulses to give in to unhealthy habits (e.g., eating fast food or opting for a cigarette/alcoholic beverage). Thus, our sleep habits provide the foundation for employees to successfully engage in all other health promotion endeavors, as well as other activities that contribute to a psychologically healthy workplace.
Improving Healthy Sleep
Many individuals engage in unhealthy sleep practices from time to time, and it is possible to have prolonged unhealthy sleep habits without necessarily having a sleep disorder. However, even occasional unhealthy sleep does not preclude you from its negative outcomes. In fact, you may be underestimating your own “unhealthy sleeper” effect. For example, one study found that students who stayed up all night studying for an exam had higher self-evaluations of performance than those with sufficient sleep, even though their actual performance was much worse (Pilcher & Walters, 1997). Thus, if you aren’t consistently adhering to the following healthy sleep practices, then you may consider doing so to improve your health, happiness, and productivity:
Get a Sufficient Amount of Sleep: You are probably familiar with the suggested “eight hours a day,” but you may not realize that this is only an average estimation. Individuals drastically differ on true sleep need, with some people only needing six hours a day to feel refreshed and others needing closer to nine (Klerman & Dijk, 2005; Van Dongen, Rogers, & Dinges, 2003). To identify your own sleep need, take a “sleep vacation” where you can allow yourself at least five days with an unrestricted sleep schedule. When people are chronically sleep deprived, their bodies often initially overcompensate for sleep need. Thus, it may take up to three days of “paying off” your sleep debt before settling on your optimal amount of sleep.
Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule: When you vary the times you go to bed and wake up, you create a physiological disruption to your natural biological rhythms (called circadian rhythm disruption) that is identical to symptoms of “jet lag”: lower concentration and alertness, higher fatigue and sleepiness, and sharp drops in mood (Fuligni & Hardway, 2006; Manber, Bootzin, Acebo, & Carskadon, 1996). Much like fitness routines, keeping a consistent sleep schedule around a sufficient amount of sleep can help boost your energy to manage your demands and decrease feelings of stress (Barber & Munz, 2010; Barber et al., 2009).
Prepare for Bedtime: Ensuring high quality sleep takes a quite bit of preparation and self-awareness. Avoid strenuous mental or physical activity right before bedtime (e.g., exercising, working), as well as substance use. Caffeine and nicotine before bedtime can make falling asleep difficult, while excessive alcohol can impair overall sleep quality (Roehrs & Roth, 1997). Allow yourself 30-60 minutes to do a relaxing activity (e.g., take a shower/bath, listen to music, reading material unrelated to work) in dimmer lighting. Psychologically and physiologically transitioning to bed prevents thinking about work or other demands right before bedtime, which interferes with your ability to fall asleep. If you find yourself obsessing over things to do, keep a notepad by your bed to write down your anticipated tasks and thoughts.
These are only a few general tips, but more strategies and information can be found from educational websites hosted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and The Sleep and Health Education Program at Harvard University.
Summary and Conclusion
Given the emerging link between self-regulation and sleep, healthy sleep practices should be a key component in health promotion and intervention programs, as they provide the foundation for employees to successfully engage in all other health promotion endeavors. Healthy sleep practices should also be a central concern in organizations because poor sleep has hidden negative psychological, physical, and performance costs for employees (e.g., the “unhealthy sleeper effect”). Moreover, the detrimental affect of poor sleep on employee involvement and job performance, training and development, health and safety, and work-life balance may ripple to group- and organizational-level outcomes that may jeopardize a psychologically healthy workplace.
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