Worn out at work

If you’re not getting enough shut-eye, your lack of sleep is affecting your day job. Here’s how.

“You’re a zombie.” “You’re just going through the motions.” These are a couple of the phrases Ryan Sutherland uses to describe what it’s like working 60 hours a week during tax season and dealing with a newborn who’s up half the night. “The lack of sleep was challenging. I spent more time working in a sleep-deprived state; a job that would normally take me 10 hours to do took 13 to 15,” says Sutherland, recalling the many times he would have back-to-back client meetings on no sleep at the Saskatoon offices of accounting firm MNP LLP.

Eventually his wife, Lindsay, who was getting a pathetic five hours (or less) of broken shut-eye a night, called in a sleep coach to help train baby Parker. Within days, the boy was falling asleep quickly, waking up once for a feeding and going right back down. “Everything got better as soon as we started to sleep,” says Sutherland. He’d always prioritized eating well, getting exercise and catching Zs, but the baby-plus-tax-season combo made him value his trips to Dreamland even more. When baby Cailen came along two years later, the family hired another sleep coach — again during tax season — to make sure everyone got the rest they needed, allowing them to function at their best during the day.

Exhaustion and sleepless nights aren’t unique to new parents: about 40% of all Canadians are tired. So why is it a big deal if millions of folks yawn through the day because they’re not getting the recommended seven to nine hours a night? Sleep hugely affects work and can really do a number on productivity in the office. There’s no doubt that sleep deprivation makes work less efficient. “Fatigue and sleep problems are insidious; they start out really subtle,” says Shelly Bischoff, a senior occupational health consultant and founder and director of Ptolemy and Associates Inc. in Calgary.

On a physiological level, getting enough sleep makes good things happen — it resets our immune systems and revs up our metabolism. Less sleep has been linked to just about every undesirable health outcome: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and a shorter life expectancy. People with underlying mental health issues such as depression often find their symptoms get worse sans sleep. And when insomnia is triggered by late-night work and too much stress, folks can spiral into the unhealthy habit of staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m., making them virtually useless at that 9 a.m. meeting. Tiredness also makes work more dangerous and in the long term can make employees physically and mentally ill, which causes absenteeism at the office.

The bottom line? Bad sleep affects the bottom line. On the flip side, workplaces that acknowledge the value of rest and make jobs sleep-friendly can boost their efficiency and their competitive edge. You can literally sleep your way to success.

WORK’S ROLE IN SLEEPLESSNESS

It’s simple: knackered people don’t work smart. “When we’re sleep deprived, our cognitive abilities are low, our ability to communicate, process information and keep our emotions in check are affected,” says Amanda Hudye, founder of Sleep-Well Consulting Inc. in Saskatoon. Sleep synthesizes learning from the day before. Meanwhile, missing one night’s sleep gives you the driving ability of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.07. That’s why 20% of fatal vehicle accidents in Canada are caused by fatigue. Exhaustion can also trigger workplace accidents: many high-profile disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill can be traced back to fatigue-driven human error.

It’s not that we’re all so disorganized that we can’t put ourselves to bed at a decent time. Work, quite simply, gets in the way of great sleep. Long hours inevitably cut into our personal time, so we end up staying up late watching Netflix for the downtime we crave. Then we get up extra early to spend a few minutes with the kids or to hit the gym before going to the office. And the cycle continues. Today’s employees are expected to do late-night and early-morning conference calls with overseas clients, pull all-nighters to get reports done and answer emails and texts at all hours. Business travel is just as punishing: you have multiple meetings in different cities, often on the same day. Then, when the plane lands at home, it’s back to the office or out to see a client.

THE FIX

Although sleep doesn’t happen at work — usually — employers need to understand it’s one of the dominos that fall because of workplace policies. “I don’t think employers are aware of the compromises we often place on people. In Canada, we have a work culture that rewards long hours,” Bischoff says. Limiting work hours is a start, but always-on workplaces need rules to limit texting and emailing on evenings and weekends. Set realistic travel schedules. Offer (potentially life-saving) free cab rides home to late-night workers. Set up a nap or quiet room.

But employees will only change their habits at home when they truly under- stand sleep’s impact, and when they’re confident management is on board with keeping employees as rested as possible. Strict policies in the rail and aviation industries, for instance, are setting rules for work hours and rest for their workers. Sutherland admits his loyalty to his workplace is related to its life-friendly policies: he can set his own hours and doesn’t feel obligated to check his email after 5 p.m. Hudye runs lunch-and-learn sessions and when she puts the science of how sleep works and its multiple health impacts front and centre, folks pay attention.

And therein lies the competitive edge of a sleep-friendly job. Employees stick around. They get stuff done efficiently. Executives step off the plane and into high-level meetings fresh and ready to negotiate intelligently. And the true bliss: 3 p.m. meetings where, without a coffee in sight, everyone around the table can stay focused, productive and keep their eyes open.

About the Author

Diane Peters


Diane Peters is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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