This article was originally published on the WorkForce blog.
March 28, 1979, along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania:
Victor Gilinsky opened his eyes.
His bedside phone was ringing. It was 4:00 AM. He picked it up …
“Mr. Gilinsky,” said the voice on the other end, “something’s not right.”
“What is it?” said Gilinsky. He was the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner at the time.
“There’s high radiation coming from the island,” said the voice. “Even higher pressure readings.”
“Off the charts, sir.”
“There’s something wrong with the meters,” said Gilinsky. “It has to be the meters.”
“I hope you’re right,” said the voice. “God help us otherwise.”
Tired workers caused the worst nuclear accident in American history.
The meters were right.
In 1979, Three Mile Island was home to a nuclear reactor that had been generating electricity for almost a year.
The accident started with a plumbing breakdown: A small pressure-relieving valve failed to close after opening. This caused cooling water to drain, which made the nuclear core overheat in the early-morning hours.
Sleep-deprived shift workers failed to understand the situation. They shut off the emergency water system that, had it been left on, would’ve cooled the core.
Luckily, nobody died in the Three Mile Island accident. But the cleanup took 12 years and cost $1 billion.
Sleep deprivation causes 274,000 workplace accidents a year.
Tragically, thirty people did die in Chernobyl, where another nuclear accident forced more than 300,000 Ukrainians to evacuate their homes and never come back.
Seven Americans died in the Challenger explosion.
And the Exxon Valdez oil spill decimated the wildlife around it, killing 200,000 seabirds, 250 bald eagles, and countless fish.
What makes sleepiness so dangerous, especially at work?
Below are some common side-effects adults can experience if they fall below the 7-8 recommended hours:
Verbal skills plummet:
Sleepy workers mumble, mispronounce and slur their words. They repeat themselves, losing their place in sentences; they enunciate poorly. Sleep deprivation affects speech and, in turn, communication in a demonstrable way.
Distractions are everywhere:
Studies prove that sleepy workers tend to make both errors of omission (i.e., not doing something they were supposed to do) and commission (i.e., doing something that leads to setbacks or harm).
Sleepy workers are forgetful because their synaptic connectivity has been compromised, scientists say. Synapses enable neurons to pass signals back and forth in the brain.
Additionally, sleep deprivation makes us more likely to take risks and less likely to control ourselves in emotional situations. These side-effects also compound over time, becoming more potent and dangerous as restless nights persist.
That said, what’s worse than any single side-effect is that 40% of Americans get less than the recommended amount of sleep. In fact, not a country in the world manages to reach an 8-hour average. As a result, workers everywhere — at every level and in every industry — are less safe or less productive, or both.
So what can people do to support healthy, consistent, natural sleep?
Let’s break down some tactics …
The technical term is Sleep Hygiene.
1. Nap less.
Like most mammals, humans are polyphasic sleepers, meaning we like to sleep during the day. Napping is a completely normal habit exercised by almost all people, including Presidents. A quick nap can make you more alert, helping you to reduce mistakes throughout the day.
Of course, napping can’t replace a good night of sleep. If you nap for too long, it could keep you up later. The experts recommend limiting your daytime shuteye to about 30 minutes to avoid restlessness when it counts.
You don’t have to be a competitive athlete to experience the sleep benefits of movement.
According to Sleep.org, as little as 10 minutes of aerobic activity (e.g., walking, jogging, cycling) can improve the quality of your nighttime rest.
3. Avoid stimulants, especially at night.
Stimulants, like caffeine and nicotine, block chemicals in the brain that induce sleep. This makes us feel alert, awake.
If you don’t want to feel this way before bed, take your last sip of coffee 4-6 hours before lights out.
4. Eat light food before bed.
Rich, greasy foods can cause heartburn and keep you up. Eating dinner earlier will help you stay comfortable throughout the night. Snacking on lighter food groups, like fruits and vegetables, can also help.
5. Get in the sun.
According to research, sunlight could help people sleep better because it supports our circadian rhythm:
Researchers studied a group of shift workers: About 58% worked in areas with few windows while the rest worked in spaces abound with them. Their goal was to test whether daylight helped people sleep better at night.
The subjects were monitored using a technique called actigraphy. They were evaluated using a tool called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). The results: Throughout the week, workers with windows slept an average of 46 minutes more per night.
(NOTE: This is why looking at a bright screen right before bed will disrupt your circadian rhythm, your sleep.)
6. Create a comfortable sleeping environment.
A comfortable sleeping environment is typically dark, cool and quiet. The bed is to your liking. The smell is soothing and mild. It’s clean, uncluttered.
That’s the physical piece. There’s also a psychological element to consider: What do you associate your bedroom with?
If it’s anything other than sleep and romance (e.g., playing with the kids; watching TV; doing work), you may find yourself subconsciously distracted.
7. Establish a routine.
“Our bodies crave consistency,” writes Natalie Dautovich, Ph.D., the National Sleep Foundation’s Environmental Scholar. “With regular daily activities, our various body systems are able to prepare for and anticipate events.”
Therefore, in regards to sleep, the more consistent your pre-bedtime routine is (e.g., taking a bath; reading a book; knitting) the easier it’ll be for your body to recognize when to relax, wind down and, ultimately, shut off.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that sleep deprivation is annually responsible for 274,000 workplace accidents and errors, costing employers $31B a year.
Sleepy workers—at every level and in every industry—are irritable and forgetful, error-prone and easily distracted. Practicing good Sleep Hygiene can help diminish these side effects, giving employees the mental and physical energy they need to be safe and productive at work.