Stress & Resilience

That Employee Sleeping on the Job Might Need Help


Most of us have seen an employee snoozing on the job; what is less common, however, is employers helping employees find out what is at the root of this and doing something about it. Often, that employee consistently dozing during meetings could be experiencing sleep deprivation linked to medical conditions they are not aware of, or to behaviors they believe are harmless.

Sleep is characterized by three important components: quantity, quality, and timing. Whenever someone gets less than the hours (quantity) of sleep they need, or the quality of their sleep decreases, they experience sleep deprivation. Also known as sleep insufficiency, sleep deprivation impacts workplace productivity: According to a large survey study in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, workers who are sleep-deprived are less productive in the daytime than workers who are rested. Also, in certain industries—such as transportation (trucking and aviation) and the healthcare industry, sleep deprivation is linked to increased on-the-job mistakes.

To promote productivity and reduce mistakes in the workplace, employers must help employees understand the basic structure of normal sleep, and how their behaviors as well as medical conditions known as sleep disorders, can cause them to be sleep-deprived.

Normal Sleep Helps Us Be Productive

People who sleep on the job may not be getting normal sleep. Normal sleep follows a basic structure—it happens in cycles, and each cycle is made up of four stages. In the first three stages, N1, N2, and N3 (collectively referred to as non-REM stages), our bodies can still move. In the fourth stage, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, although our eyes are moving and we dream, our muscles are temporarily paralyzed.

Each sleep cycle can last anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, and we normally complete four cycles in a night. It is critical to go through normal cycles to be healthy in general, and productive in the workplace. For example, stage N3 is linked to declarative memory, our ability to remember things like facts and the location of objects. REM sleep is linked to the consolidation of emotional memories—such as important moments related to specific people, events, or situations.

Sleep Disorders Disrupt Normal Sleep

People who sleep on the job may have sleep disorders. Sleep disorders are medical conditions that disrupt the quantity, quality, and timing of our sleep. They can delay and even prevent us from ever getting to the later stages of sleep, like N3 and REM, or they can cause us to complete fewer sleep cycles.

One common sleep disorder, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), affects breathing during sleep. One structure (or more) in our upper airway obstructs and consequently reduces the normal flow of air from our nose or mouth to the lungs. A 2019 study estimated that as many as 33.9% of adults between ages 30 and 70 have OSA. Telltale signs of OSA include loud snoring, followed by a gasping sound during which the person briefly awakens. Additionally, people with OSA will feel excessively tired during the day and doze off easily.

Innocent Behaviors Disrupt Normal Sleep

The quantity of sleep an employee is getting is often first blamed for sleepiness on the job; however, the quantity of sleep that adults need varies from one person to the next. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this ranges from seven hours (or even less, as there isn't one definitive number) to nine hours (or longer). Behaviors can be the culprit instead.

Whether we need seven or nine hours of sleep, we compromise our sleep quantity by one seemingly harmless behavior, for example—physically lying-in bed for more hours than the length of sleep we need. It is important that an employee knows how many hours of sleep their body needs and stays in bed for just that period of time (and no longer). If not, they can experience a delay in falling asleep (a sleep disorder called sleep onset insomnia) or wake up many times throughout the night (a sleep disorder called sleep maintenance insomnia). Ironically, people who lie in bed longer than their ideal sleep length tend to experience daytime fatigue and, in response, stay in bed even longer—but this just continues a vicious cycle.

The Impact of Daylight and Darkness

The time of day an employee sleeps is also key to them not experiencing sleep deprivation. Humans produce a hormone called melatonin that is released by our brains to help us sleep. When we are exposed to light, which commonly happens in the daytime, this suppresses melatonin from being released into the bloodstream. When darkness falls, melatonin secretion is no longer inhibited, and our bodies increase the production and secretion of melatonin so we become sleepy.

For employees who are exposed to light at the start of their regular sleep hours, their brains secrete less melatonin, which can lengthen the time it takes for them to start sleeping. This is the case for people who work night shifts and get to sleep during the daytime.

Timing also affects employees who are exposed to darkness during regular daytime hours (for example, people who spend excess time indoors due to depression). These individuals might not have enough light to stop melatonin secretion, and therefore they sleep excessively.

The Impact of Naps and Caffeine

Melatonin is not the only chemical that impact sleep. So, too, does adenosine. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and other parts of the body. The longer we are awake, the more adenosine accumulates in our brains, and the drowsier we feel. This adenosine-induced sleepiness is referred to as our endogenous sleep drive or, simply, the urge to sleep.

Whenever we consume caffeine, it blocks structures in the brain (receptors) that would detect the accumulated adenosine and make us want to sleep. This temporarily makes us less sleepy; however, once our bodies process the caffeine, the adenosine is still present; our receptors suddenly detect the adenosine and we experience a "crash".

On the other hand, adenosine decreases whenever we sleep. Therefore, taking naps for longer than 30 minutes during our wake hours reduces the total amount of adenosine circulating in our brains when it is time to sleep, which reduces our urge to sleep.

Three Ways to Help Employees Have Good Sleep Health

Employers can help employees get enough sleep to be healthy and productive, at home and at work. Encouraging your employees to understand how sleep works, common behaviors that affect sleep, and signs of sleep disorders is the first step.

For example, encourage employees to monitor how many hours of sleep they get and how their productivity fluctuates if their quantity of sleep changes. Whenever possible, they should also sleep during hours that are naturally dark and avoid excessive daytime napping. Most importantly, encourage employees to look out for telltale signs that they might have a sleep disorder that is affecting the quality of their sleep and if so, to see a physician. Symptoms of insomnia, for example, that will show up in the workplace include persistent tiredness, difficulty concentrating during normal daytime hours, and the need for multiple caffeinated beverages to maintain wakefulness and focus.

The second step employers can take is to create a culture and workplace policies that promote healthy sleep, for all levels of employees. For example, when the work day ends, employees should be free from duties and not be expected to respond to work-related communication, so they have an opportunity to obtain sufficient sleep.

One group of workers that needs special consideration from employers is shift workers. Shift workers often have to sleep at times that occur before or after what is considered the societal norm, which is comparable to them sleeping in another time zone. For example, an employee who works from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. will perhaps get their "night's sleep" from 5 a.m.-1 p.m. Thus, shift workers try to initiate and maintain sleep when their bodies naturally want to be awake. Their quantity of sleep is usually shorter and their ability to get the right amounts of the later stages of sleep (N3 and REM) needed for information retention etc. is compromised. To assuage these effects, employers can make policies that allow shift workers to keep the same shift for as long as possible so their bodies don't have to continually "switch time zones", or provide days off in between when employees are changing shifts, so their bodies can ease into the transition.

The third and most important step employers can take to help employees have good sleep health is to ensure sleep is a central part of corporate wellness initiatives. This can be done by incorporating sleep disorder screening as part of mandated medical checks, providing educational opportunities through wellness talks from physicians, and responding with genuine curiosity to employees who are known to nod off on the job.

We spend almost a third of our daily lives sleeping. By ensuring your employees sleep as best as they can, you enable them to realize their maximum potential in the other two-thirds

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