Sleep to keep ahead

By Alex Dahm14 January 2009

If you are like millions of others around the world, rooting for your country during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, 8-24 August, had you staying up late. In exchange for watching athletes display their best efforts, you probably had to settle for less than peak performance at work the next day.

The price may be high: reduced energy, greater difficulty concentrating, irritability, and greater risk of accidents. Work performance and relationships can suffer too and pain may be intensified by the physical and mental consequences of lack of sleep.

Every year, new research reinforces the value of sleep. When researchers at the University of California at Berkeley in the US kept volunteers awake for 24 hours after giving them a list of words to study, the subjects' ability to recall the words fell by 40%. Another new Berkeley study indicated your recall of all that happened today would be 20 to 30% sharper after sleeping for at least seven of the next 12 hours than it is immediately after the day's events occur. In addition, you would be able to make broader and more logical connections when well rested.

"Many successful CEOs talk about having good instincts," said Matthew Walker, a Berkeley researcher. "I would argue that all they are doing is allowing themselves at least 12 hours to marinate the information they take in and, if those 12 hours include some sleep, they get even better results."

According to an internet poll of more than 300 small business owners and managers conducted by Staples office supply stores earlier this year, more than half of respondents said that work has actually become part of their dreams. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said that they "sleepwork" (i.e. dream about work), and nearly 70% of those "sleepworkers" report that they wake up and put their "work dreams" into action.

Of greater concern to SC&RA members whose employees operate trucks, cranes and other large equipment, research proves sleep deprivation greatly hinders the ability to perform at high levels on "psychomotor vigilance" tasks, which measure reaction. A study conducted at Walter Reed and the University of Pennsylvania in the US found that those who slept three hours or less not only had progressively slower reaction times, but did not recover from the effects of sleep deprivation even after several days of sleeping longer hours.

This research also has been applied to long-haul trucking. The researchers concluded that the level of impairment caused by sleep deprivation can be equivalent to that caused by drunkenness.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Transportation has been working to revise its hours-of-service rules for drivers. Although there have been numerous disagreements, some of which have ended up in federal courts, virtually everyone involved believes the issue warrants considerable focus.

Regardless of the hours officially set aside for slumber, sleep disorders may result in even the most well-intentioned drivers being drowsy on the road. Sleep apnoea, the most common pulmonary problem encountered in commercial drivers, is the condition characterised by loud snoring, cessation of breathing for a short time, multiple awakenings, gasping for air, and eventually sleep deprivation.

"Like people who have had too much to drink, the chronically sleep-deprived have no sense of their limitations," says University of Pennsylvania researcher David Dinges. His study of a random sample of 1,391 commercial drivers licence holders living within a 50-mile (80 km) radius of the university revealed that 17.6% had mild sleep apnoea, 5.8% had moderate sleep apnoea, and 4.7% had severe sleep apnoea.

If you (or your spouse) suspect you have sleep apnoea, you should see your physician, who may refer you to one of the growing number of sleep clinics. If you have continued to deprive yourself of sleep after the closing night ceremonies at the Olympics, you need to stop now. There is no gold medal for lack of performance.

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