Uneven Sleep Patterns Significantly Decrease Productivity
> 10/23/2006 10:45:59 AM

While we've long understood the negative effects of many nights without sufficient periods of rest, research only further confirms the many ways in which a cumulative lack of sleep handicaps our ability to perform and move through our daily lives successfully. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, medical school professor Charles A. Czeisler discusses the business world implications of the sleep deficit phenomenon. The professor is also a sleep expert, author of several crucial essays on sleep problems and have to best manage them. In addition to the obvious related decreases in reaction speed, memory efficiency and decision-making abilities, extended periods without sleep can lead to a state very much like legal intoxication, resulting in countless preventable road tragedies. Though it's poorly understood and often unreported, the National Sleep Foundation estimates that drowsy driving takes at least 1500 American lives every year. This number pales in comparison to the approximately 17,000 yearly drunk driving deaths, but Czeisler believes the actual total to be dramatically higher: the problem is hard to measure and its effects are every bit as deadly. In Czeisler's words:

In the U.S., drowsy drivers are responsible for a fifth of all motor vehicle accidents and some 8,000 deaths annually. It is estimated that 80,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel every day, 10% of them run off the road, and every two minutes, one of them crashes.

In attempts to curtail these statistics, certain states created legal definitions that equate sleep-deprived driving with other forms of reckless highway behavior, leading to charges of vehicular homicide for those whose sleeplessness leads to the deaths of others. But the potentially deadly results of sleep deficits extend well beyond the automobile. Harvard research studies revealed that medical interns who work shifts of 24 hours or more are at least 60% more likely to injure themselves or their patients during routine surgical procedures. In a profession so dependent upon physical precision, this is a serious problem, as most hospital workers endure such demanding schedules at more than one point during their careers.

The major focus of Cziesler's interview, however, is the business world, where sleeplessness is often admired as a sign of dedication and efficiency. Many intense work schedules do not allow for sufficient sleep, but the professor argues that businesses need to make significant changes in order to combat the problem. Pulling all-nighters or hopping on international red eye flights is standard practice for up and coming businessmen eager to demonstrate their devotion to the tasks at hand. But in the end these practices predictably result in higher degrees of anxiety that detract from performance. A few extra hours of sleep, he argues, may result in better presentations and more successful business deals. Those in executive positions who seem to thrive on 80-hour weeks and excessive amounts of caffeine are ultimately compromising their businesses as well as their personal health. Sleep deprivation also compounds existing problems like high blood pressure and obesity; strangely, those who go without sleep often develop larger appetites, which in turn results in greater instances of sleep apnea, or suspension of oxygen flow to the brain during sleep which interferes with steady rest.

In order to combat this problem, Cziesler suggests that corporations adopt strict regulations regarding work hours and allow employees more time to rest. By limiting work to twelve hours a day at maximum, allowing at least one day off per week, and keeping the busiest work week around sixty hours, employers could guarantee that, for the most part, their workers will not show up to work without sufficient rest and maintain their optimum levels of productivity. Of course, most serious businessmen remain unwilling to compromise efficiency in the name of employee health, but the professor's assertions seem largely true, and many corporations may find that they ultimately benefit by relaxing their schedules in small ways.

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