Are You Sleepy?
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Are You Sleepy? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine October 2005

If you came across this article in the process of simply thumbing through the magazine, you probably aren’t sleepy.  Most people don’t choose to read work-related articles in an effort to fall asleep, and if they are sleepy at work, they probably try to find something to do that doesn’t involve sitting down.  After all, we wouldn’t want to be caught falling asleep on the job would we?  It might sound a bit strange to even suggest that someone might be attempting to work with their brain not fully booted up yet, or that they have given up on that happening during this work day and are searching for ways to stay awake until quitting time, but my suspicion is that the percentage of people who are sleepy at work today is greater than it ever has been.  Have you recently struggled to stay awake in a meeting?  Have you ever modified your work schedule because the game went into extra innings or overtime the night before?

The amount and quality of sleep we get directly affects human performance on the job, both in terms of the number of mistakes we make and the speed at which we make decisions and progress through different types of project work.  If we work on the front lines, our sleep value affects the quality of the products we inspect or the level of service we provide to our internal or external customers.  Sleep research is on the rise, and its findings directly support these claims, many of which existed only as unproven theories fifteen years ago.  While you may agree with these statements, you may also be relatively less aware of the impact that a lack of sleep is having on the daily performance of your company, your team, and yourself.

I’m concerned about this.  I think the research is just beginning to uncover the tip of the ‘lack of sleep’ iceberg.  I think the daily productivity drain that is a direct result of our degrading sleep value is much greater than we realize.  If we couple this downward spiral of sleep value with the increase in workplace stress, and the use of drugs to counteract that stress, we have a very nice recipe for slow decision making, increased human error, and significant relationship decay.  We may not be measuring mind speed in the workplace yet, but that does not mean that mind speed, or the lack thereof, is costing us thousands, if not millions, of dollars a day in lost productivity and customer sales.

If you are a leader in your company, you should be concerned.  If you are an Industrial Engineer who is responsible for setting work standards you should be concerned.  If you personally find yourself struggling to stay awake in a training session, dozing off as you drive to or from work, or having to redo that spreadsheet because of a formula error, you should be concerned.  We can’t control what our people do on their personal time, but we should at least be taking a harder look at the impact poor sleep is having on those numbers that we are challenging others to meet, and often improve on, each day.

Over the last ten years in particular, I have invested a lot of personal time and effort both studying the impact of sleep on human performance and using my own body and mind as a sleep deprivation guinea pig, both intentionally and unintentionally.  I have learned how eating large meals, consuming alcohol or caffeine in the evening, and having an inconsistent sleep cycle affects the quality of my sleep.  I have learned that sleep value consists of two components – the amount of sleep we get and the quality of that sleep – and in turn, is not simply defined by the time we spend in bed with our eyes closed.  I have verified the impact that continually cheating the sandman has on my own performance, and I have witnessed the impact of fatigue on my work teams as a work week of short nights and long days progressed towards Friday.  I feel that I have significant justification to be significantly concerned.

We can talk about process improvement, six sigma levels of quality, and the lean enterprise all we want, but if we continue to ignore, let alone address, the impact that poor sleep value is having on our daily safety, quality, and cost performance, I feel that we are missing a big part of the performance improvement picture.  We might be able to design systems that discourage or minimize the physical mistakes we make on the job, but it is much tougher to design systems that prevent mental errors.  In most cases, the best we can do is devise better systems for catching these mistakes and correcting them quickly, both of which are non-value added in nature.

Is there a solution?  If we don’t have the ability to affect the way our people live their lives away from work, is this a lost cause we simply have to live with and find ways to quantify?  Are we destined to suffer the erosion of human performance that will continue in the years to come if we don’t address both these sleep concerns and the other physiological factors that affect sleep value, like stress, poor eating habits, and an almost hedonistic desire to play more during the week so that we can make it through another dreadful work day?

We may not be able to find a perfect remedy to this problem, but I do think that there are changes we can consider making that might begin to slow down the negative spin of this reinforcing loop, and eventually begin to spin it in a positive direction again., and in turn, help us begin to improve the sleep value levels of   our people.  Instead of simply expanding our health benefits to cover additional stress relief drugs, let’s take a look at finding ways to reduce the stress that we are inducing into the workplace.  Instead of accepting the fact that work is something we have to struggle through each day, let’s find ways to make work at least more tolerable, and hopefully, more enjoyable.  Most importantly, we need recognize the daily impact that sleep value is having on our performance and consider that factor when we attempt to diagnose human error or performance shortfalls.

I hope that you made it to this point in the article without dozing off.  I hope that you have not witnessed or heard about any on-the-job performance problems that were lack of sleep-related during the three or so minutes it took you to read this far down the page.  I don’t think this problem is out of control yet, but you never know.  There are a lot of sleep deprived people walking around, driving around, or simply sitting around out there.  Their numbers are much greater than we realize, and they are increasing each day.  Are you sleepy?

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