How Skimping on Sleep Affects Your Work

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 05, 2013
3 min read

It's bad enough to toss and turn in bed at night when you can't fall asleep. If you have to get up and go to work the next day, you may feel sluggish and unproductive, too. You might not even be able to handle your workload, as well. And you don't need to be up all night to feel these effects -- a few hours of lost slumber can affect your performance.

"If you regularly get less than 7 hours of sleep, you're not at your best," says Thomas Balkin, PhD, director of behavioral biology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. "The less sleep you get, the worse you do."

If you have a demanding job or are trying to get ahead on your responsibilities, you might be caught in a vicious cycle of skimping on or skipping sleep altogether to work longer. But it often tends to backfire, says Sean P.A. Drummond, PhD, director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine and Mood Disorders Psychotherapy in the Veterans Administration San Diego Healthcare System. "You're just not as productive when you lack sleep."

The signs are easy to spot. If you're routinely tired or distracted at work, or if it takes you longer to do your job, you likely need more rest.

Regularly missing sleep can reduce your:

  • Attention and concentration. Do you notice your mind drifting or find it hard to focus? "This is the first place it's apparent, especially if you're trying to concentrate for a sustained time," says Drummond.
  • Reaction time. This can be a big problem in some jobs. It also makes commuting riskier. "It not only takes longer to notice brake lights in front of you on the road," Balkin says. "It also takes longer to stop."
  • Decision-making. If you're still waiting for that bright idea, get more sleep. Without it, "you're less likely to step outside the box and be creative," Drummond says.
  • Memory. "You may have trouble holding multiple things, like three or four numbers, in your head at once," Drummond says.

Try these strategies to feel more alert at work:

  • Get some bright light. Indoor light is OK, but bright natural light has a stronger alerting effect, Drummond says. For the best results, take a walk outside. "The combination of exercise, standing, and exposure to bright light all help," he says. Avoid wearing sunglasses.
  • Schedule important meetings for when you're most alert. That way you can avoid having to make very important decisions, say, during your afternoon slump.
  • Drink caffeinated coffee, tea, or soda in moderation. This strategy is best early in the day, because caffeine can affect sleep 8 to 10 hours after you have it. Don't overdo it. "There's no substitute for sleep," Balkin says. And keep in mind that you might be taking in more caffeine than you think -- it's found in other items like chocolate and some pain relievers, too.
  • Take a nap. If you can work in a nap on a break, it might refresh you. "A 'power nap' can restore alertness," Drummond says. Avoid napping if you have insomnia, though, because you may have more difficulty falling or staying asleep. Some experts say that your nap should be short and taken before 5 p.m.