Not long ago, sleep wasn't considered particularly important. You either got it or you didn't, and if you didn't, too bad. That picture has changed dramatically as more and more health problems are associated with poor sleep.
Some of the problems caused by lack of sleep are short-term. You become more moody. Your judgment can be off. You find it harder to learn. You may also be at greater risk of serious injury. All of this adds up to more mistakes at work and school, and opens the door to potential accidents while driving. There are also long-term problems that arise when you don't get enough sleep. Over time, sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even an early death.
For many people, work prevents adequate sleep throughout the week. So, if you're thinking about a new career, or wondering whether your work could be creating health risks from sleep deprivation, keep reading.
Now and then a news report surfaces of an air traffic controller who fell asleep at work. These careful flight path calculators carry huge responsibilities for the safety of airline passengers—and they often do so at night, when their bodies are primed for sleep. Even when the stakes are high, staying up through the night is difficult.
The reason involves our circadian rhythms—the internal clock that tells us when to be awake and when to sleep. Adapting to a high-demand job that demands your best when your body says "bedtime" is a lot to ask of a person, and many find it difficult to adapt.
The Internet never sleeps. Countless people across the world expect Internet service whenever they happen to be up. For the people who assure this service is available 24/7, that often adds up to working at unusual hours.
Network administrators have to be awake at odd times in case something malfunctions. And that means that like air traffic controllers, these front-lines Internet caretakers risk health problems related to sleep deprivation.
Throughout most of human history, things could only be made when there was adequate sunlight to see to make them. After the Industrial Revolution and the invention of lightbulbs, all that has changed. In the modern world, factory workers are often expected to fill shifts while most of us sleep.
Since it's difficult to adapt to working at night, you can expect factory workers to deal with the same types of health concerns as other nighttime workers. But factory workers often deal with heavy equipment and potential hazards, and these make factories particularly dangerous places to fall asleep on the job.
If you think you work long hours, consider your boss. Senior managers typically work long, grinding hours and deal with a lot of stress in the process. And you wonder why the boss seems a little on edge. Remember—poor mood is associated with lack of sleep. And the more you work, studies show, the less likely you are to get adequate sleep.
When a big story breaks, you can expect someone out there to be covering it and reporting it, no matter what time it is. Cable news reporters, camera operators, show producers, and other staff members work around the clock to deliver information to their audiences.
There are unfortunate social implications for those who work late at night. Studies show that working at odd hours is linked with greater risks of substance abuse and family dissolution.
Many of the jobs on this 24/7 work-list are fairly new, but nurses have been working around the clock for a long time. Sick and injured people need continual care, and that means skilled nurses are needed day and night. It may be necessary, but consider the potential consequences. Nurses deliver life-saving interventions to their patients, and people who lack sleep are more apt to make mistakes. Consider that if you live with a nurse, and try to help them get the sleep they need.
Financial Analysts tend to be driven, dedicated people willing to put in extra hours to earn bigger paychecks. And many of them specialize in foreign markets where standard business hours conflict with those in the Western Hemisphere. Put that all together, and you have the recipe for a lot of sleepy financial analysts.
Financial analysts typically earn a lot more than the average worker. And one study found that more than 60% of high-earners work above 50 hours each week. A full 10% work in excess of 80 hours a week.
Crime doesn't sleep, as the saying goes, and that means police officers have to be ready any time, day or night. In many police departments, rotating shifts keep officers from picking and choosing who has to work the most extreme hours. But that has consequences. If your shift keeps changing, your body can't adapt to any particular sleep routine. And as we've discussed, that can lead to a whole variety of consequences to mood and health.
Just because you've graduated from medical school doesn't mean you get to take it easy. That's when internships at area hospitals start, and they can be grueling. Some hospitals allow shifts as long as 24 hours straight for new medical hopefuls. (That's followed by a 14-hour break). What do you think that does to them?
One study found that medical students have double the odds of crashing their cars after working long hours. Those long shifts make mistakes more likely as well, and studies have found med students are more likely to misdiagnose their patients at the end of a long shift.
Not only do commercial airline pilots work long hours, they do so cruising through various time zones. That can be disorienting by the time they touch down and end their shifts. The Federal Aviation Administration recognizes this, and has set strict limits for how long a pilot can fly, and how much time off he or she must get when the shift ends. Before completing a flight, a pilot is required to receive at least eight hours of rest time among the prior 24 hours.
Anyone who has ever had a baby, or knows someone who has, knows there's something funny about the idea of “sleeping like a baby.” Babies need lots of sleep—just not necessarily when it's convenient for the rest of us. They tend to wake up every couple of hours. And when they do, they often need care—especially when they are very young.
You may surprisingly get about the same amount of sleep as you did before, but there's a catch. A study showed that on average, new moms sleep about seven hours per night. That's about average for adults. But that seven hours is broken up over the course of the night, meaning you may sleep the same number of hours, but that sleep will be less refreshing.
Truckers know that driving at night has many advantages. There are fewer cars on the road, meaning they can zip through busy regions in less time. And the more time they spend behind the wheel, the sooner they can deliver the goods, and the more deliveries they can potentially make.
As you might imagine, all of this driving can be hazardous to your sleep health. And when truck drivers don't get enough sleep, they leave themselves vulnerable to the inherent dangers of life on the road. That includes crashes, which claim more lives than any other work-related cause of death. Drowsy driving is a serious problem that makes it harder to pay attention on the road, slows reaction times, and causes difficulties with decision-making. And it's not just truck drivers who are affected—the CDC estimates that one out of every 25 adults have fallen asleep while driving in any given month.
When people go out to drink, they usually do so at night. That means bars and the people who staff them must stay open late—typically until 2 a.m. or later. This type of schedule works for some people—the so-called night owls who feel more awake and productive at night. But for others, this is a recipe for frequent exhaustion. One tip that could help is to maintain the same schedule throughout the week, even on nights off.
If you are one of the 20% of American who works outside of standard business hours and find it difficult to get a full night's sleep, you may be suffering from a sleep disorder. Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) refers to people who work odd hours and either find it difficult to get to sleep or suffer during their waking hours from sleepiness. Other symptoms include headaches, low energy, and trouble concentrating.
People with SWSD are at greater risk of making mistakes at work, causing accidents, functioning poorly in social situations, moodiness, dependency to drugs and alcohol, and a variety of health problems. It all comes down to a lack of sleep.
If you're a shift worker, your work habits could help you avoid the alertness problems that often come with this type of occupation. Here are some tips to try:
- Try to work a predictable shift. Frequent shift changes will impact your sleep schedule, which should be as regular and predictable as possible.
- To stay alert, instead of working alone, try to work with others.
- When you take your break, get some exercise, even if that simply means walking around more.
- Start your shift with a caffeinated beverage.
- Some jobs allow a bit of napping. If yours does, try it but set your alarm.
Sometimes sleep problems work themselves out. At other times, a medical professional trained in sleep problems can help. If you've gone for a month or longer without adequate sleep, and your sleeplessness is causing problems either at work or at home, it may be time to visit the doctor. A good doctor can recommend the best medicine possible for restoring some of the sleep you miss while you work late.
If you need to get more sleep during the day, here are a few tips to make it work:
- Whether or not you work the next day, keep the same sleep schedule.
- Keep your bedroom as dark as possible.
- If you drive home in daylight, try to find a route that minimizes sunlight, which can activate your internal daytime clock.
- Ask family members to stay quiet while you sleep by avoiding vacuuming and other noisy activities. Ask them to put in headphones when watching television or playing music.
- Let people who come to your home know that you sleep during the day by placing a “Do Not Disturb” sign at the front door.
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- Center for Work-Life Policy: "Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Work Week."
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