From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Sleeping and the Job

Sleep is a precious commodity to the business traveler. While a 6:00 a.m. alarm may sound the start of a normal workday for most of America, for the West Coast resident who has traveled east on a business trip, it’s the equivalent of being roused out of bed at 3:00 a.m. Biologically, it just doesn’t work.

“Sleep is important when we are just working at home in our day job,” says Dr. William Orr, a member of the board of directors of the National Sleep Foundation and a clinical professor of medicine at University of Oklahoma Health Science Center. “But by crossing time zones, we are making ourselves more vulnerable to sleep disorders. If you’re a business traveler, you’re expected to be awake and alert in the time zone you’re in.” And that, says Orr, can present a problem at work.

The biological stumbling blocks that prevent a business traveler from immediately adapting to his or her temporary time zone are called circadian rhythms, the 24-hour clock the human body works on. Simply put, humans run on a schedule that wants rest at night and activity during the day. While these rhythms are somewhat affected by sunlight and outside influences, changing times zones can throw them off. If the body wants to wake at 7:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, that’s 10:00 a.m. in New York. If the body wants to rest at 11:30 p.m. in D.C., that’s dinner time in Honolulu.

The change in time zones and environments turns into “jet lag”, a concept that was once dismissed as merely a state of mind but that has now been found to be a physical state resulting from a travel-hindered circadian clock as well as other external factors. It’s a state that doesn’t bode well with any type of traveler, but one that particularly affects business travelers.

In a 1994 survey of business travelers by Hilton Hotels, 72 percent of respondents complained about jet lag when they travel, even if they were only traveling one time zone away. Other studies suggest the number could be as high as 94 percent. The same Hilton survey showed that 54 percent of respondents didn’t feel they were performing at their peak while on business trips, 25 percent had an inability to focus at meetings, and 16 percent even admitted to nodding off during business meetings while traveling.

“Look at the Chernobyl incident, Challenger, Exxon Valdez,” says Orr. “All of these were shown to be related to individuals who had to perform accurately and were not able to do it [because of lack of sleep]. Even subtle alterations [in sleep] can have an affect in the day time.”

Others confirm Orr’s assertion. In Canada, automobile accidents were found to increase on the Monday morning following the switch to Daylight Savings Time when workers are shorted by just an hour of sleep. A study in New Zealand equated a night with fewer than six hours of sleep to a blood alcohol level of .05 percent. And when diver Greg Louganis hit his head on the platform in Olympic competition, he blamed it on jet lag and lack of sleep.

A 1997 project by the National Sleep Foundation, entitled “Sleep, Pain and the Workplace”, surveyed over 400 respondents regarding how their work was affected by bouts of poor sleep. The results showed:
• 63 percent had more difficulty handling stressful situations.
• 60 percent reported more difficulty concentrating on the task they were performing.
• 57 percent experienced more difficulties listening to what others are saying.
• 55 percent had difficulties solving problems on the job.
• 48 percent had difficulty making decisions.
• 43 percent had more difficulty relating to their co-workers.

Respondents also said their concentration was about 70 percent of normal on days following a poor-sleep night, they accomplished only 76 percent of what they could have accomplished if they had been well rested, and their quality diminished by 20 percent.

“To be awake and alert in the daytime, one generally should be getting seven-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half hours of sleep. Even a very minor deviation can ultimately effect performance,” says Orr.

And, time zones aside, a traveler’s best intentions to get a good night sleep can be thwarted by outside influences. In the Hilton survey, outside noise, noise from the room next door, undesirable room temperature, uncomfortable pillows and just being in an unfamiliar environment were all given as reasons by travelers for not being able to get their needed shut eye.

But there is some hope for the red-eyed, road weary business traveler. Hotels are making attempts to improve the sleep-ability of their rooms for business travelers. Hilton, for example, used its survey to develop a signature line of sleep-oriented rooms in a handful of its hotels. Their Sleep-Tight rooms feature light-blocking drapery, allergy-free pillows, ear plugs, eye masks, white-noise and meditation CDs as well as other sleep- and comfort-inducing amenities. Other rooms focus on stressed travelers as well.

Most experts agree that, special rooms aside, simple tips like avoiding alcohol and caffeine while on the road, attempting to acclimate to a new time zone while still at home and selecting flights that will least interfere with sleep times can also help. And, Orr acknowledges, if the traveler stays in the new time zone for about a week, he or she will become relatively adjusted. Of course, long times away from home can have their drawbacks, too. “You can have the same problem when you come back home,” says Orr. 

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2003-05-01.