Workplace Health: The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

When I was in college in my very early 20s, it was always cool to brag about how little sleep one was functioning on: “Yeah, I pulled an all-nighter last night to study for that exam.”

It’s funny how it did not seem to matter. Even if you stayed up all night studying, you still seemed to muster up enough energy to party the whole weekend through.

Sleep Fact: Varying the sleeping and waking times disrupts the internal body clock and therefore sleep quality. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time (+/- 20 minutes) every night programs the body to sleep better. (Learn more: Why a Regular Sleep Schedule Benefits Your Health |  How to Get on a Sleep Schedule.)

Many years later, some of us go into another phase of all-nighters…as parents. For the mother, the sleeplessness can start during pregnancy. That’s when it all started for me. From the summer of 2010, until the summer of 2013 – I hardly slept at all. Not one night did I sleep more than 2-4 hours without waking up. The worst period was when my son was a newborn. From the night he was born until his first birthday, he woke up crying every two hours and did not like to take naps.

Due to that, I never had a chance to catch up on my sleep, and that for four solid years. So, insomnia creeped up on me.

I went back to work after two years of parental leave in April of 2013. At that very same time, my marriage started to break up. As of September 2013, I was alone with my 2 ½ year old son – living abroad, with no family to help. I woke up most nights at 3 a.m. and laid there for hours just worrying until the alarm went off. Then, I got up and started my day. At some point, I started working during that sleepless time, and it became a vicious circle. My brain just couldn’t stop thinking…clearly it was on overdrive.

Sleep Fact: “According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, the short-term productivity gains from neglecting sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on the mood, ability to focus, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep.” (Dr. Travis Bradberry, expert on the field of emotional intelligence)

And a person who is sleep deprived, like a drunk person, may have no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is, according to a Harvard Business Review article.

My colleagues and my managers were extremely supportive during my separation. However, no one knew what my nights looked like – I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my lack of sleep. I was at work on time every day and no one knew I was working during the night to compensate and get the work done. Anyway, I thought, “You’ve gotta function, Jenny! You can do this!” Yes, we are capable of great things in life. However, when we don’t sleep, the body suffers. The brain suffers – with long-term consequences.

Sleep Fact: “Sleep deprivation impacts both physical and mental health. Sleep loss leads to lower engagement, poor decision making and it reduces creativity and problem-solving skills.” (Dr. Els von der Helm, sleep scientist)

What happened next? The sleeplessness continued and started impacting my physical health. My son was bringing home the typical “day care” illnesses, which I caught easily, but worse, because my immune system was so impaired. In April 2014, I developed mononucleosis and I had a bad case of conjunctivitis. I also got a horrible ear infection, which, for months, caused me to hear sound one half of a music note higher in the left ear than the right – making listening to music, which is my passion, unbearable. I was miserable. Something had to give – how could I continue functioning, working and caring for my son?

Sleep Fact: “Sleep deprivation is also linked to a variety of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.” (Dr. Travis Bradberry)

Then, one day, after dropping him off at day care, it happened. I knew that I had hit rock bottom. I stood at my kitchen sink, looking out the window, and was utterly exhausted. That’s when I had to get help.

Exhaustion was making me feel insecure and paranoid.  I was terrified – of losing my job, my house, everything. I was not even able to open any letters or look at my email. I was afraid to talk to anyone from work. The lack of sleep had put me into a permanent alarm-like state. Every little problem exhausted me…not to mention the larger ones.

Sleep Fact: “A severe lack of sleep stresses you out because your body overproduces the stress hormone cortisol when it’s sleep deprived.” (Dr. Travis Bradberry)

I’m a real book worm and if I have a problem, I try to find the answer by reading – not on the internet, but books. So, I started reading about the brain and how stress affects its processes, I realized my body was full of stress hormones that were putting my brain on constant alert, which was adding to the vicious circle of sleeplessness. Wow. Just understanding that fact made things so much easier. Finally, I knew why I felt so afraid. That was the first step in learning how to sleep through the night again.

Fast-forward to today, October 2017. I have developed a few rules for myself in order to survive this crazy, wonderful life:

  • I keep to a very strict sleep schedule – for my son and myself. I make very few exceptions to this rule.
  • I love coffee, but I only drink it until 1 p.m. I try to limit it to two cups. Otherwise, I cannot go to sleep when I need to.
  • I try to get some fresh air and exercise on a regular basis with my child. I now ride my bike alongside him to school each morning. Those 3 km make a huge difference in my state of mind.
  • I avoid reading on my cell phone in bed. The blue light tricks you into thinking you are not tired.
  • I limit evening calls for work to a couple of times a week. Otherwise, I would be too wound up to go to bed on time every night.
  • Yoga also helps me sleep better. I try to make it to a class once a week. I also try to do 5 – 10 minutes a day when I can fit it in.
  • I keep the television off. We only watch very select DVDs – a couple of times a week. I find television to be a real sleep killer.
  • And, most important of all, there is no shame in asking for help when I feel it’s getting to be too much.

Making sleep a priority is allowing me to live my life to the fullest and I have more energy for the things I love – a fantastic son, an amazing job, and terrific and supportive friends and colleagues. While everyone’s situation is different, I hope my story is helpful to realize how sleep deprivation impacts all areas of our lives, often without us even realizing it.

Book Recommendations:

  • Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom” by Rick Hanson
  • The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy” by David Servan-Schreiber

Sleep Deprivation: No Individual Case

“Trends reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that the amount of sleep Americans get has been in a 27+ year decline, where the number of U.S adults sleeping fewer than 6 hours during a 24-hour period has almost doubled, from 38.6 million to 70.1 million. The CDC considers this trend to be a public health epidemic. And this problem is not unique to the U.S. For example, a recent survey conducted by the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare showed that between 30-40 percent of Japanese men between the ages of 20-50 years, report not being able to sleep due to the stresses caused by work.” – Source: Joe Sherwood, SAP SuccessFactors, May 2017: You Snooze You… Win?