Health

IT pros beware: Sleep deprivation can spell big trouble

Most of us operate on short sleep from time to time -- it's the nature of our profession and modern lifestyles. But if skimping on sleep is a way of life for you, watch out: You could wind up functioning below par and incur some serious health problems.

According to a recent study, American adults are sleeping on average less than seven hours a night -- down an hour and a half from the amount of sleep people got a hundred years ago. Many scientists believe that one of the major causes of our getting less sleep is the modern availability of round-the-clock activities and entertainment, the most pervasive source of which is now certainly the Internet. With the 'net, we can now work, study, or play at 3 A.M. and increasingly, we do. Naturally, most of us in the IT industry have formed an especially close bond with the 'net, making us more prone to losing sleep.

The fast-paced, highly competitive, and rapidly growing nature of our industry also makes us more likely to sleep less. To stay competitive, we often have to work way beyond the 40-hour work week, especially at smaller or emerging companies. For those who have started their own businesses, it's even worse -- work will usually go until exhaustion. To compound the issue, the field is still developing and changing so rapidly that we have to constantly study as if we were full-time students just to keep up. It's really no wonder we're not sleeping. There just isn't enough time in the day. The problem is that this lack of sleep can hurt us.

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Sleep deprivation and sleep debt

Sleep deprivation is exactly what it sounds like: depriving our bodies of sleep for long periods of time -- a full day and night or more. Sleep debt has a cumulative effect: When we don't get enough sleep (less than about 7.5 to 8.5 hours) night after night, we begin to experience many of the same problems as with regular sleep deprivation. These problems include

  • Decreased alertness and manual dexterity
  • Impaired memory and cognitive function
  • Irritability
  • Weakened immune system

Some more long-term issues thought to be linked to sleep deprivation include

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

If the long-term health risks aren't enough to encourage us to try to get to bed a little earlier, we should also keep in mind that impaired brain function and motor skills will decrease the quality of our work. We won't be able to solve problems as quickly. And because we aren't thinking clearly, we might even exacerbate the very problems we're trying to fix. One study found that subjects who had been 17 hours or more without sleep experienced the same -- if not worse -- impairment while driving as those who were at the legal limit for blood-alcohol content. So when we work without sleep, it could have similar effects to working while inebriated.

Solutions

The real answer is quite simple: Devote seven or eight hours every night to sleep. It is best to try to keep the schedule consistent, as this will help our bodies keep what is called a circadian rhythm. Trying to sleep less during the week and then make up for it by oversleeping on the weekends will throw off that rhythm and make it much harder to wake up on Monday morning.

Caffeine

Stimulants such as caffeine will temporarily make us more alert and agile. They can't, however, be recommended as a real solution because they will wear off, leaving us in a state of withdrawal that is generally worse than before. Also, caffeine increases heart rate and blood pressure, which can compound other problems caused by sleep deprivation and put us at risk for other diseases.

Power napping

One possible answer for those who simply cannot afford seven or eight hours of sleep every night is to take power naps. A power nap is a short period of sleep that ends just before entering deep sleep. Since the nap is so short, it is often possible to take one during a lunch break. A power nap is thought to give much of the same benefit of a regular sleep, but in only 20 to 30 minutes. Famous nappers include Winston Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein, Margaret Thatcher, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo Da Vinci.

When taking a power nap, it's important to keep the duration short. If you allow yourself to enter deep sleep and don't complete it, you'll experience what's called sleep inertia -- basically morning grogginess -- and may feel worse than before.

The bottom line is this: Whatever temporary fixes you may implement, in the end nothing can truly substitute for a good night's sleep.

About

Kris Littlejohn grew up in a household of tech writers and has been playing with, building/disassembling, and writing about computers and other gadgets from an early age, including a number of articles for TechRepublic.

14 comments
RayJeff
RayJeff

For about a year, I worked at two data centers. The fist one, my hours covers 2nd and 3rd shift. The second data center, 3rd shift. I was used to having worked 2nd shift all of my IT career. The first 2 weeks of working at night, I don't know how I was able to make it. But, when I started taking power naps during my late night lunch break, it really help. It was a temp solution to a major problem. So, on my days off, I would take at least a day and a half of full rest adn sleep to kind of get back on track. But, not having enough sleep eventually caught up with em in a very big way.

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

...now has dementia, I believe. I wouldn't recommend her technique of 4 hours sleep + power-naps. Now George W Bush finishes work and is on the golf course by 16:30. I would bet more on his life-style choices more than Margaret Thatcher's, for a happy life.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

20-30 for a short nap. Normal complete sleep cycle runs about 90 minutes. For best results, keep it short, or keep in in full cycles. I'm only getting 4 cycles a night, which isn't enough. The only problem is breaking myself away from the TV or the computer early enough to get the 5 to 6 cycles needed.

rkuhn040172
rkuhn040172

Usually occur doing the management meetings. You know, 40 minutes about the rest of the company and IT gets 3 minutes. That leaves 37 minutes of rest and relaxation. :)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Since I have to drive between calls, I am not usually in a position to take a nap after lunch. I do my best, however, to get at least seven to eight hours every night.

Tink!
Tink!

in the middle of your day can refresh you for the rest of it. It was a while ago I think. If I have time I'll try to dredge it up. :)

enquiries
enquiries

Churchill was incredibly productive he managed work 14-16 hours per day during the darkest times in the war; he himself attributes this to the fact that he took an hours sleep after lunch every day. He was very specific, he could only be woken if the Germans invaded. He learned the trick whilst following the Spanish army as a correspondent in Cuba in 1895. By rights given his diet his habit of drinking and smoking and his stressful lifestyle he should not have made it past 55, he lived until 90 and whilst I am not a doctor I am convinced that the hour's sleep every day made all the difference. If you have ever tried it, not only does it refresh but it de-stresses at the same time. I discovered this interesting fact whilst researching my new book ?What Would Churchill Do? - Business advice from the man who saved the world" - which analyses Churchill's wartime skills and applies them to modern business.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

I am so caffeinated, all I need to do is blink 5 or 6 times, its like a 'micro nap' :D

rkuhn040172
rkuhn040172

Everyone else around you on the road is putting on their makeup, talking on their cell phones, eating, etc. Do you really think anyone would notice if you decided to take a nap while driving? :)

jred
jred

Is in your vehicle. Eat, set your mobile phone alarm for 15 minutes. No one can bug you, and they don't "catch you sleeping" at your desk (looks bad even if it's your lunch break). I couldn't make it without my "lunch" breaks.

gomathi.muthukumar
gomathi.muthukumar

True, physical workouts & relaxation techniques helps a lot in gaining good sleep & there are few do?s and don?ts about good sleep-including healthy diet pattern, thoughts and state of mind

normhaga
normhaga

that Churchill lived until 90 because of an hour nap each day. Churchill lived until 90 because of his genes and other factors in his life. The amount of sleep varies with individuals and may of may not be controlled by genetics. I am bipolar, in my manic phases I may not sleep for a week or more at a time. In my depressive stages, no matter how much I sleep I can't get enough rest.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I'm almost 6-1/2 feet tall. I can't sleep in the back of the van, it's full. Because of the cage, space in the front is limited. If I can't stretch my legs, it won't work. It would actually be easier for me to nap in the break rooms in the stores. Edit: and since I work "at" not "for" these establishments... :D

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