Effect of Sleep Loss on Performance: Working Under the Influence (WUI?)
Productivity: the cornerstone of capitalist America. But how do we achieve that magical state? That optimal flow where deadlines are met, schedules grind forward at ever-increasing pace, and you’re staying on top of the competition?
The answer, most often, seems to require cutting corners on sleep. The average working American spends 9am-5pm at a job site (if not longer), commutes to and from work, and in what little free time remains will sprinkle in social time with friends and family, exercise, or any number of leisure activities of interest. After all, the more we fit into waking hours, the more we get done, right?
This logic certainly appeals to me. I’m notoriously bad at compromising, and why should I? If I manage my time right, I can balance exercise, socializing, some cooking (it’s a struggle), and reading, all in the non-work time frame. As long as I’m in bed by midnight I’m getting some good sleep (it only takes one cup of coffee in the morning to get me going so that’s pretty good!). I don’t have kids so what’s my excuse _no_t to optimize my time?
That schedule, however, has chronic partial sleep loss written all over it. And I would not be in the minority. A study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, published in February 2016, concluded that more than a third of American adults aged 18-60 years do not get enough sleep. The recommendation they cite, determined by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, calls for at least 7 hours each night for optimal health. Your precise sleep need is much more individual than that (consult this white paper for more information) but the aforementioned 7-hour threshold is a good place to start when evaluating the average American’s schedule.
The reality is: if you’re operating with chronic sleep loss you’re not only functioning sub-optimally, you’re impaired. That may sound dramatic, and before last week I would have agreed with you. But then I read the article “Fatigue, Alcohol and Performance Impairment” from the journal Nature. In it, the researchers quantify the impact of fatigue due to sleep loss in terms we can understand: equivalent alcohol intoxication. For the experiment a group of 40 participants were broken up in to two groups: one group was kept awake for 28 hours, simulating pulling an all-nighter, and the other consumed 10-15g of alcohol at 30-minute intervals until their blood alcohol concentration reached 0.10%. Each group was given a performance task that required them to react as quickly as possible to visual cues randomly timed on a computer. The results were fascinating.
As you would imagine, the longer a person was kept awake, the worse they did on the performance task. The same, of course, was true for the subjects getting progressively more intoxicated. The correlation between the two groups, however, is the scary part. The researchers determined that after 17 hours of sustained wakefulness, performance on the task decreased to a level equivalent to a participant whose blood alcohol concentration was 0.05%. Further, after 24 hours of sustained wakefulness, performance on the task was equivalent to those with a BAC of 0.10%. For reference, you’ll get a DUI in every state if your BAC is 0.08%.
Now you may think, “well those are extreme examples. I never stay up 24 hours straight.” And me neither, at least not since I moved from New Orleans. But consider the example I gave prior. In that scenario I was waking up at 7am, doing my work day, going out to see a friend, watching TV at home, and internet trolling until midnight, when I’m off to bed. That’s not a day out of the ordinary and right there I’ve been awake for 17 hours. And, as we’ve now learned, without sufficient sleep to catch up, it is highly probable that I will show up to work the next day at the equivalent of tipsy, at the very least, and bordering on cognitively drunk.
What’s worse, humans are decidedly poor judges of their own levels of fitness, mentally and physically. We may think, after that cup of coffee and a solid meal, you’re not that sleepy. Studies have found, however, that subjective ratings of sleepiness do not correlate with subsequent performance. We aren’t good at assessing our own attentional state or well-being. And, as a result, may often sacrifice sleep without knowing the physical toll that’s actually taking on our bodies. It’s not socially acceptable for me to show up intoxicated to work. Beyond the basic lack of professionalism I’d be displaying, I’d also be unfit to contribute productively to the team. This begs the question: should it be considered unprofessional to get too little sleep?
As a society we put a premium on efficiency. We go to great lengths to fit as much activity as possible into waking hours. But maybe we have it all wrong. If our executive functioning is as compromised by sleepiness as it is by alcohol, we ought to put sleep in the forefront of our plans if we truly want to get the most out of ourselves during the day.