Safety and OSHA News

New research: As little as 16 minutes less sleep can harm work concentration

Poor sleep may lead to bad decision-making and distracting thoughts at work, according to a recent study by the Work, Family and Health Network. 

About 40% of U.S. workers report insomnia symptoms, which can impair middle-aged workers’ daily functioning in multiple ways, including less concentration and the potential for more mistakes while on the job.

Previous lab-based experimental studies have shown sleep deprivation has negative effects on performance in cognitive tests, but this new observational study examines sleep and cognitive functioning in a worker’s daily life.

The study adds empirical evidence that poorer sleep the night before work results in slower mental activity, delayed decision-making capabilities and a potential increase in mistakes.

Data for the study came from a sample of 130 middle-aged workers at a U.S. IT firm who were tasked with keeping an 8-day diary on their sleep habits with the intent to predict next-day “cognitive interference,” or the experience of off-task and distracting thoughts.

The IT workers were given a 5-point frequency scale with 0 being “never” and 4 being “very often,” and researchers averaged responses on nine items that measure the experience of off-task and distracting thoughts than usual.

Across all the participants, just 16 minutes less sleep than usual was associated with one additional point on the cognitive interference scale the following day.

A shorter and poorer quality night’s sleep than usual led to the workers reporting more cognitive interference the following day.

Participants also reported they would go to bed earlier than normal after experiencing more cognitive interference but wake up earlier than usual the next day due to fatigue.

This link between a previous night’s sleep and cognitive interference the following day was more apparent on workdays compared to non-workdays, possibly because the participants had more opportunities for cognitive interference and fewer opportunities for sleep during workdays.

Some tips for optimizing sleep health
The results from the study suggest that optimizing sleep health will result in more effective work performance.

With that in mind, employers and workers need to pay attention to sleep health to ensure a more successful working life.

Researchers offered these tips to help employers and workers enhance sleep health:

  • Organizations should create and support a culture that minimizes sleep-disruptive activities from work, including work-related phone calls outside of work, responding to email after hours and early bird meetings.
  • Workers should establish good sleep routines and follow them every day. A good way to do that is to shut off phones and ignore emails after a certain time to get more relaxed before bedtime and get at least seven hours of sleep.
  • Regular exercise can lead to better quality sleep for workers. Many workers feel they have no time for sleep or exercise, but both are important to an individual’s overall health.
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