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Professor studies impact of sleep on work performance

Staff Report //November 3, 2020//

Professor studies impact of sleep on work performance

Staff Report //November 3, 2020//

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June Pilcher stands in front of the Class of ‰ŰŞ39 bell in Clemson's Carillon Garden. (Photo/Provided)Any employer can recognize that sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on their office team, but one Clemson University professor delved into just how much late nights impact performance and what organizations can do to prevent sleepy workforces.

According to June Pilcher, an alumni distinguished psychology professor, the larger the organization, the greater the enterprise is impacted by sleep-deprived workers. And in jobs requiring a high level of vigilance or precision, such as long-haul truck driving or health care, the consequences can be deadly. Numerous studies have shown a direct link between sleep deprivation or daytime sleepiness and increased medical-related errors including drug administration mistakes and the incorrect operation of equipment, according to a news release.

Pilcher’s study shows that while both sleep quantity and quality can affect work performance, adults who consistently sleep six hours or less are more likely to see a drop off in performance due to a shortage of sleep. Those who sleep seven or more hours could face a greater impact from poor quality of shuteye. Age, gender and individual circadian rhythms can also lead to variation in sleep quantity and quality needs, according to Pilcher. Several studies show that female shift workers tend to have an increased risk of disadvantageous sleep habits than male coworkers, while poorer sleep quality and quantity also tend to spike with age.

Caffeine can remedy sleep-deprived work performance, but it takes about 20 minutes for mild stimulation to take effect, according to Picher’s study, so she recommends using caffeine mints for a more immediate digestion and effect.

For those who don’t partake, Pilcher also saw a positive effect in a 10 to 15-minute walk outside or a brief nap or resting period.

With the impacts of sleep on work performance in mind, Pilcher suggests that organizations’ human resource departments can help employees become more aware of their sleep-habit choices and how they can aid or maim their performance. Mitigation measures include flexible working hours where appropriate, time zone adaptation when traveling and greater light exposure in the office, the release said.

One of Pilcher's students presents research on the relationship between sleep, exercise and body-mass index on college students at the 2019 Association of Psychological Science convention in Washington, D.C. (Photo/Provided)“The most important thing is for people to learn to prioritize good sleep habits,” Pilcher said in the release. “Work settings should provide regular breaks for workers to rest quietly with eyes closed if needed. Some organizations even provide napping rooms.”

Her study broaches other researcher’s suggestions that shift workers could be monitored for the negative effects of sleep deprivation during the hiring process through selection tools on aggressive behaviors.

“The implications of these findings suggest that human resources could mitigate future personnel problems at the level of hiring or when assigning employees to a new work position by screening for individual responsiveness to sleep loss and sleepiness,” she said in the study. “The potential benefits of organizations taking these steps are more apparent when considering that individuals do not appear to self-select occupations based on their own ability to cope with sleepiness-inducing work environments or schedules.”

Still, Pilcher can see both benefits and barriers to vetting employees for notoriously irregular shift jobs by their current sleep habits.

“I think it could be helpful to do this for shift workers, but it would be difficult to do in a reliable fashion,” she said in the release. “Of course, there are down sides of doing this. For example, it is relatively easy to change our sleep habits if we want to. It could be problematic to use a one-time sleep or sleepiness measure as a job-screening or job-skills measure.”