This Is What Happens To Your Brain When You Work On Less Than 6 Hours Of Sleep

Up all night watching election returns? Here are 5 tips for powering through at work.
You may think you're fine at work when you're sleep-deprived, but research says otherwise.
bernardbodo via Getty Images
You may think you're fine at work when you're sleep-deprived, but research says otherwise.

Too many employees today are tired zombies, going to work sleepless. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for adults, has found that 1 in 3 adults are falling short of this. In a 2016 CareerBuilder survey of 3,200 employees, 1 in 5 said they averaged five hours of sleep or less a night.

Yet many of us are unaware of the effects of sleep deprivation.

“If you got fewer than seven hours of sleep last night, you are a little bit sleep-deprived. And you will probably deny that and say, ‘No, I’m fine.’ But if we were to bring you into one of our sleep labs and have you do some performance tests, we would be able to see that you are not as good at doing those as you are fully rested,” said Jeanne Duffy, a neuroscientist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders.

Once sleeplessness becomes a pattern, you may not even realize you are impaired. “Let’s say you are getting eight hours of sleep a night and then you suddenly start getting six. You really notice it on the first day or two after that. And then you stop noticing it,” Duffy said about chronic sleep deprivation. “And it’s not because you’re not impaired by it. It’s because you sort of have a new frame of reference.”

But there are real tradeoffs you make when you forgo sleep. When you stay up too late bingeing a show, or worrying about your job, or taking care of a child, your performance at work the next day is compromised.

1. You’re distracted.

Are you repeatedly switching from tab to tab on your browser, unable to focus on your work?

That could be a response to sleep deprivation, said Duffy. One way your brain tries to keep you awake “is to constantly look for distractions. That will impact your ability to focus on a task and be able to do that task,” she said.

2. You’re anxious.

Too little sleep and the world can feel like a minefield of danger the next day. If you feel on edge at work, lack of sleep may be the source.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, had 18 people come into their sleep lab for a night of normal rest and then a night of total sleep deprivation. After the night of sleep deprivation, anxiety levels in participants were 30 percent higher, with half of the people reaching the levels reported in individuals with anxiety disorders.

3. You’re angrier.

It only takes a few lost hours of sleep for your mood to change for the worse.

In a 2018 Journal of Experimental Psychology study by Iowa State researchers, 142 community residents were randomly assigned either to maintain their regular sleep routine, which averaged to almost 7 hours of shut-eye a night, or to sacrifice sleep. The second group, which got about 4 1/2 hours, reported more anger and distress over everyday nuisances like an uncomfortable shirt or a barking dog.

4. You’re less patient with colleagues.

“It makes us short-tempered,” Duffy said about sleep deprivation.

If you’re in charge of others at work, it is imperative for you to get enough rest to be a good manager. A 2017 study led by management researchers Cristiano Guarana and Christopher Barnes measured the sleep of 40 managers and their 120 direct reports and the quality of the relationships between them during the first three months of working together. They found that when the boss was sleep-deprived, management-worker relations suffered. Bosses were less patient and more irritable, and employees reported worse interactions.

“When people are sleep-deprived or suffer lower quality of sleep, the prefrontal cortex of their brain suffers an especially detrimental effect. This is the region that is responsible for self-control,” Barnes said in an Academy of Management Journal video about how sleep influences work behavior. “Sleep-deprived people or people who have poor quality of sleep are less effective at using self-control to guide their own actions.”

5. You take bigger risks.

Chronic sleep restriction can alter your behavior in less obvious ways by driving you to make riskier decisions, according to a 2017 Annals of Neurology study.

Researchers compared the decision-making of men ages 18-28 who got only five hours a night for a week with another group who had a restful eight hours of sleep a night. They were asked to choose between the safe option of receiving a set amount of money or gambling on a higher amount that could become no money if they lost. The more sleep-deprived participants were more likely to gamble on the riskier choice.

If you must power through a sleep-deprived day ...

Let’s be clear: There are times when you may be just too sleepy to work and could present a risk to yourself and others. In those cases, make the smart call not to go in. If you operate potentially dangerous machinery or need strong physical balance or careful hand-eye coordination to be safe, stay home. Even commuting to work can be a hazard when you are too sleepy to drive safely.

“If you’re in that situation, rather than fighting it, you really should pull over, even if it’s a crazy place to pull over, because you start to lose your judgment about how impaired you are,” said Paul Glovinsky, the clinical director of the St. Peter’s Sleep Center in Albany, New York, and the author of “You Are Getting Sleepy: Lifestyle-Based Solutions for Insomnia.”

But in cases where you are not dangerously sleep-deprived, here are some energizing tips to help you survive a tired day:

Get outside. Before you start your workday, get out into the sun. Being exposed to natural light tells your internal biological clock to be alert. “Our circadian system is very responsive to light,” Glovinsky said.

Move around. When you are sitting at your desk doing repetitive tasks, you are more likely to feel tired. Take breaks, get up and stretch your legs. “You can move around and do a little bit of exercise. Those kinds of things can help you over the short term,” Duffy said.

Have caffeine but don’t overdo it. Drinking coffee can block the sleep-inducing chemicals in your brain and cause temporary alertness. The National Sleep Foundation said that three 8 oz. cups of coffee over a whole day is considered a moderate amount.

Nap if possible. Duffy said a 20-minute nap could be beneficial: “You can often wake up from that and feel really refreshed and have that last for several hours.”

But don’t doze off too long or you could slip into the deep stages of sleep. “That’s the kind of sleep that you wake up from and you feel groggy,” she said.

Sleep that night. Although there is no magic to get those lost hours back, the best way to recover from sleeplessness is to sleep. “You have to make a sleep a priority and to set yourself time to get enough sleep every night,” Duffy said.

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