Many Grouchy, Error-Prone Workers Just Need More Sleep | KUOW News and Information

Many Grouchy, Error-Prone Workers Just Need More Sleep

Apr 26, 2016
Originally published on May 31, 2016 1:04 pm

Hey! Wake up! Need another cup of coffee?

Join the club. Apparently about a third of Americans are sleep-deprived. And their employers are probably paying for it, in the form of mistakes, productivity loss, accidents and increased health insurance costs.

A recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report found a third of Americans get less sleep than the recommended seven hours a night. Another survey by Accountemps, an accounting services firm, put that number at nearly 75 percent in March. Bill Driscoll, Accountemps' regional president in the greater Boston area, says some sleepy accountants even admitted it caused them to make costly mistakes.

"One person deleted a project that took 1,000 hours to put together," Driscoll says. "Another person missed a decimal point on an estimated payment and the client overpaid by $1 million.

Oops.

William David Brown, a sleep psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top, says Americans are sacrificing more and more sleep every year. Fatigue is cumulative, he says, and missing the equivalent of one night's sleep is like having a blood alcohol concentration of about 0.1 — above the legal limit to drive.

"About a third of your employees in any big company are coming to work with an equivalent impairment level of being intoxicated," Brown says.

He says lack of sleep affects brain function, memory, heart health and makes people prone to depression and diabetes. That's why people with an "insomnia" diagnosis are twice as likely to miss work, Brown says, than somebody without the diagnosis.

And, not surprisingly, accidents are a consequence, too, mostly between midnight and early morning, as well as in midafternoon — the periods in the circadian cycle when humans tend to be most tired. Sleepy workers can make lethal mistakes; a 2007 report in the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety found, among other problems, that medical residents who worked 24-hour shifts made five times as many "serious diagnostic errors" as those who were able to get more sleep.

Accidents linked to sleep-deprivation are a problem the American Trucking Association is well aware of, says Dave Osiecki, the group's vice president. Regulators impose daily and weekly driving limits on truckers, he says, but "even more important than limiting work time is the quality of sleep, the length of sleep, and you can't regulate that."

The trucking association says some companies have started testing drivers for sleep apnea and treating those who start and stop breathing when they sleep.

For some people, sleep and work can get into a bad cycle where they negatively affect each other.

"I'm definitely pretty stressed, and it's difficult to sleep," says Ari Koelle-Pittel, a senior at Drexel University who also works as a writing tutor. "Sometimes I even have dreams where I'm just like thinking about things that I have to do the next day, and it feels like I haven't slept at all when I wake up." Once after that sort of restless night, Koelle-Pittel headed off to a warm, windowless room for office hours — and quickly conked out.

"I was completely out," Koelle-Pittel says. "I was right up at the front desk and I was pretty much the first thing that anyone could see when they walked in."

That wasn't just embarrassing. The sleep issue creates focus issues, too.

"There are times when I've just blanked out in the middle of a sentence," Koelle-Pittel says, "where I was trying to explain a concept and I had to stop and say, 'All right, we need to go back, I'm so sorry.' "

Most people aren't nice when they get too little sleep.

Mike Grandinetti worked in a Silicon Valley startup where the boss routinely demanded all-nighters and walked around with a baseball bat to enforce a sense of urgency. Grandinetti, who now works at a different firm, says the 24/7 approach of the firm backfired: People missed market signals and tanked deals, and the whole venture became so unpleasant because people were so doggone tired.

"Employees wind up becoming irritable, and they're less likely to socialize with one another outside of work, which is really critical in building relationships," he says.

If there's a growing crisis at the nexus of sleep and work, it's not clear what employers are doing about it. The Society for Human Resource Management says 6 percent of employers offered nap rooms in 2011. That dropped to 2 percent last year.

But according to Christopher Lindholst, the sale of napping pods at his company, MetroNaps, increased 38 percent last year. The pods look like New Age capsules that cocoon the napper's head, and dim the lights or offer soothing sounds. Lindholst says companies can track how often the pods are used and when, and that they're seeing benefits.

"A short nap actually boosts productivity," he says, "and companies have woken up to that."

Pun intended, of course.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story requires no introduction for our hours 24-hour staff. Workers and their employers are paying a price for losing sleep. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Any number of surveys will tell you a good number of us clock in already pooped. A survey by Accountemps, an accounting services firm, found a third of office workers routinely show up to work tired. Bill Driscoll, Accountemps' regional president, says some accountants blamed sleep for some big mistakes.

BILL DRISCOLL: One person deleted a project that took a thousand hours to put together. Another person missed a decimal point on an estimated payment and the client overpaid by a million dollars.

NOGUCHI: William David Brown is a doctor who studies sleep. He says Americans sacrifice more sleep every year, and fatigue is cumulative. Missing the equivalent of one night's sleep is like having a blood alcohol level that's above the legal limit to drive.

KRISTI BROWN: About a third of your employees in any big company are coming to work with an equivalent impairment level of being intoxicated.

NOGUCHI: Lack of sleep affects brain function, memory, heart health and makes people prone to depression and diabetes.

BROWN: When I say it touches every aspect of our functioning, I think that's true.

NOGUCHI: Brown says insomniacs are twice as likely to miss work. And not surprisingly, are mistakes happening, mostly during hours in the circadian cycle when humans tend to be the most tired - midnight to early morning and in midafternoon. Consequences can be to lethal - to use one Harvard study of medical residences as an example.

BROWN: One in 20 will admit to a sleep-deprived error in judgment that resulted in death of a patient.

NOGUCHI: Sleep-deprivation accidents are something the American Trucking Association is well aware of. Association Vice President Dave Osiecki says regulators impose daily and weekly driving limits on truckers.

DAVE OSIECKI: Even more important than limiting work time is the quality of sleep, the length of sleep. And you can't regulate that.

NOGUCHI: Osiecki says some companies started testing drivers for sleep apnea and treating those who repeatedly stop breathing for sure periods while sleeping. For some, sleep and work can get into a bad cycle where they negatively affect each other - take a Ari Koelle-Pittel, a senior at Drexel University.

ARI KOELLE-PITTEL: I'm definitely pretty stressed, and it's difficult to sleep. You know, sometimes I even have dreams where I'm just, like, thinking about things that I have to do the next day. And it feels like I haven't slept at all when I wake up.

NOGUCHI: Once in a windowless warm room, where she works writing as a tutor, she conked out before she knew it.

KOELLE-PITTEL: I was completely out. I was right, like, up at the front desk. And I was pretty much the first thing that anyone could see when they walked in.

NOGUCHI: Koelle-Pittel says for her, the more common problem is with focus.

KOELLE-PITTEL: There are times when I just - like, I've blanked out in the middle of a sentence where I was trying to explain a concept and I had to stop and say all right, we need to go back. I'm so sorry.

NOGUCHI: Plus, people aren't very nice on little sleep. Mike Grandinetti worked in a Silicon Valley startup where the boss routinely demanded all-nighters. Grandinetti, who now works at a different firm, says the 24-7 approach backfired. People missed market signals, tanked deals, and the whole venture became so unpleasant because people were so doggone tired.

MIKE GRANDINETTI: Employees wind up becoming irritable. They are less likely to socialize with one another outside of work, which is really critical when building relationships.

NOGUCHI: If there's a growing crisis at the nexus of sleep and work, he says, work culture needs to change. Christopher Lindholst agrees. He's CEO with the upstart firm MetroNaps, which started selling napping pods that look like recliners that cocoon the napper's head. Lindholst says sales are increasing.

CHRISTOPHER LINDHOLST: A short nap actually boosts productivity, and companies have woken up to that.

NOGUCHI: Pun naturally intended. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.