Sleeping on the Job

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Back when I was living in DC and working for Island Press, I started doing some freelance copywriting for a former colleague who had left to work for Newbridge Book Clubs. One of the books I had to write copy for was called Power Sleep, by Cornell University sleep researcher James B. Maas.

The book is written like a self-help book and sounds like it will tell you how to get more sleep in less time, but it doesn’t actually do that, it just tells you to sleep more. However given that we live in a society that considers sleep expendable — something that babies might need but people should learn to live without if they want to get ahead — that actually seems important enough on its own.

The main message of the book is that your brain will function so much better when it is fully rested that the time you spend sleeping will be more than made up for by increased efficiency during your waking hours.

I was reading it right before leaving DC to start telecommuting to my job from North Carolina, so I decided to actually follow his advice and see if I could get caught up and fully rested. I started going to bed earlier and just generally valuing sleep more; if I had a few days or weeks with significantly reduced sleep, I would try to make it up as soon as I could by napping or going to bed earlier.

I noticed a huge difference within a very short period of time and became an evangelist for sleep. All of my friends got really sick of me, really quickly. They were like okay, this is fine for you, you work from home and live by yourself, for normal people this is not workable. Enough with the sleep.

I think I was much less convincing than the book; I’m not sure that anyone actually believed me. My friend from the book club sent me a case of the book so I could give copies away but I’m not sure if that did much good either. It was like the Jehovah’s Witnesses giving you The Watchtower at the door. Thanks, I’ll be sure to look at it.

Up until that point I had never gotten enough sleep and I nearly always felt like I could lay down and fall asleep at any moment. I thought that was normal. James Maas says that if you’re fully rested, you will not be tired during the day, and you will not be tempted to sleep, no matter how boring the meeting or how hot the room or how big your lunch was. You will be bored or hot or full, but you will not be sleepy.

I sleep much more now, and when I’m awake I’m actually awake. I have no problems sleeping for nine or ten hours a day, or taking a three-hour nap if I have days where I didn’t get enough sleep at night. I don’t feel lazy or like it’s a waste of time or like I should be doing something else.

After reading Power Sleep, I also read some other books on sleep, including The Promise of Sleep by sleep researcher William C. Dement, which is much more detailed than Power Sleep, and which doesn’t present itself as a self-help book, which I think is probably better.

Among other things, both of the books talk about shift work and the problems with it and how to make it better for the people who have to do it. I’ve been thinking about that lately with all the news reports about air traffic controllers sleeping on the job.

Dr. Dement writes in The Promise of Sleep about some of the problems with shift work.

Theoretically, it should be possible for people to adapt to working at night and sleeping during the day, just as we can adapt to a new time zone after a few days. But workers don’t ever completely adapt; night workers revert to a daytime schedule on weekends and vacations when, let’s face it, people want to see their kids, spend time with their spouses, pursue outdoor activities, have a life. The only way they can do this is to break their nocturnal cycle, usually just when they are getting used to it.

He also explains the problems with the way shift work is usually implemented, with workers rotating through day/evening/night shifts. “Due to shift rotation, workers never become fully adjusted to any single schedule. The brain is often fighting to go to sleep when work demands are being made and resisting sleep when bedtime arrives.”

He says that the most common shift rotation in the United Sates is one week per shift, followed by a “counterclockwise” change to the previous period (night shift to evening shift, evening to day, or day to night). “This is the worst possible combination; a week is just long enough to become acclimated to a schedule, and it is more difficult to make a counterclockwise change than a clockwise one.”

He argues that a better plan would be to use a “three-week clockwise rotation (day to evening, evening to night, and night to day)” and talks about a company in Utah that changed to that approach.

The three-week periods gave workers a week to make the adjustment to the new schedule and two weeks to maintain it. When it came time to rotate, it was to the later shift, which is easier to adapt to. More than 70 percent of the workers preferred the new schedule, and there were fewer complaints of sleep and various other health problems. The company reported a 20 to 30 percent increase in productivity and lower absentee rates.

I have no idea what the FAA does, but it seems like it would make sense for them to look at the latest sleep research and talk to experts about how best to implement schedules (and whether to allow napping — there is compelling evidence that short naps can significantly improve alertness), rather than just telling air traffic controllers they need to stay awake all night, period.

So there’s my treatise on sleep, which is not really related to anything else here, but it is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, so I wanted to address it.

And I will leave you with a short excerpt from The Promise of Sleep, which ends with my favorite quote about sleep from Charles Lindbergh, which I often think of  when I’m extremely tired.

When you are extremely sleep deprived, sleep is so beguiling that little else seems to matter. One group of sleep researchers recently studied six female college students deprived of 24 hours of sleep who were given a series of psychomotor finger-tapping tests and asked questions designed to assess their level of motivation to perform the tests. The results suggested that the subjects’ motivation to respond, more than their capacity to do so, was the primary factor in the deterioration of their cognitive and motor performance during sleep deprivation

Time after time, records of various transportation disasters show that people who are sleep deprived react to dangerous situations with indifference. Before a plane crashed on approach to the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba — the first major airplane crash to be officially attributed by the National Transportation Safety Board to crew fatigue — the sleep-deprived crew inexplicably pursued a difficult approach instead of an easier one. Before the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down — in the wee hours of the morning, when clock-dependent alerting is at its lowest point — the engineers clearly noticed but bizarrely did not respond to critical warnings that should have caused panic. Charles Lindbergh, in his book about the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, describes this state eloquently. Lindbergh started on the 33 ½-hour flight after having been up for more than a day and a half already — which meant by the time he completed the flight, he had been awake for almost 70 hours. Describing the flight, he wrote, “My mind clicks on and off … My whole body argues dully that nothing, nothing life can attain, is quite so desirable as sleep.”

One Response to “Sleeping on the Job”

  1. fivecats Says:

    I think we have deluded ourselves in to thinking that by sheer willpower alone we can DO ANYTHING. It’s Mind over Matter and only losers succumb to weaknesses like hunger, pain and… sleep.

    That our bodies didn’t get that memo — or if they did, they’re still having quite a good chuckle over it — simply means that they know who is really in charge. We might pour caffeine and other stimulants into it, trying to keep it going beyond the mandated rest periods, but our bodies are willing to be patient. Like the parents of an over-active four-year old, our bodies know that buzz of busyness is going to come crashing any minute now.

    When we were doing shows my sleep cycle would be way off. A long drive to a nearby town, a night in a hotel followed by another pre-dawn drive to the show site complete with setting up the tent, displays and jewelry… that all meant that by mid-morning my body was shutting down for its first nap of the day. It was there that I discovered I don’t need to have a “special place” for sleeping. A chair, a tarp on the ground, it doesn’t have to be fancy.

    In fact, the thing I find the most annoying about my standard 40-hour werk week is the inability to take naps. (Especially now, during allergy season)


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