Mind & Body

Here's How Much Your Work Suffers When You're Sleep Deprived

Sleep deprivation is bad for you. At this point, it's pretty uncontroversial: it makes your brain more or less cannibalize itself, and it's linked to Alzheimer's disease. It messes with your behavior, too. According to a new study, it could make you incompetent on the job.

Working Sleepy

The study looked at participants' ability to follow complex procedures while sleep deprived — something many people, from surgeons to chefs, do at work every day. The study's 234 college-aged participants didn't have to follow any particular workplace procedure, though. Instead, they had to follow a made-up protocol the researchers called UNRAVEL.

UNRAVEL is an acronym in which each letter stands for a different step in the protocol. For the "U" step, for instance, participants had to indicate whether a letter on their screen was underlined or italicized. For the "N" step, they had to indicate if the random letter was near or far from the beginning of the alphabet. They had to remember where they were in the protocol, which was a difficult task made all the more difficult by interruptions: 20-second typed transcription exercises that popped up on their screen at random.

This all sounds tough enough, but remember, this is a study about sleep deprivation. So participants had to cycle through a myriad of UNRAVEL procedures at night, and still more the next morning. In between the two stretches of testing, only half the participants were allowed to sleep; the other half were kept awake overnight in the lab.

Unsurprisingly, the sleep-deprived group performed much worse on the next day's testing. They made many more errors, many of them after the transcription tasks since the interruptions made them lose their place in the procedure. Researchers also found that as the morning tests progressed, the rate at which sleep-deprived participants made errors increased. Ultimately, 15 percent of them failed the morning tests entirely. (Only 1 percent of the well-rested participants failed the morning tests.)

Memory Matters

The UNRAVEL procedure might seem like silly busywork — in fact, it is — but these results have serious implications for real-life workplaces, Kimberly Fenn, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University and the study's lead author, said in a press release.

Surgeons, for example, frequently have to follow procedures while sleep deprived, especially during the internship phase of their career. This can lead to all kinds of pretty grave errors, like sewing patients up with medical implements and sponges still inside of them. Sleep deprivation can have even more serious consequences in other fields, too. Sleep-deprived people making procedural mistakes have reportedly caused both the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which poured 11 million gallons of oil into waters near Alaska.

Ultimately, this study makes it clearer than ever that work-life balance, or at least work-sleep balance, is important. It's not just that it makes individuals happier — it can also keep the people around them safer. (Let's not forget here that sleep-deprived people are roughly as prone to car crashes as drunk people.)

A recent ad summarized our always-on culture when it declared that if "sleep deprivation is your drug of choice" it might mean you're "a doer" — in other words, a mover and shaker who's going places. But this study makes it clear that it could also mean you're a disaster waiting to happen. Why not play it safe and get your recommended seven hours of sleep a night?

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If you're having trouble getting enough sleep, check out "The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It" by neurologist W. Chris Winter, M.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice October 25, 2018

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