Why We Can’t Sleep And What It’s Doing to Our Work

We’re a nation with a chronically sleep-deprived workforce. It’s a big productivity problem, but rest easy, there is a way to tackle it.

Why We Can’t Sleep And What It’s Doing to Our Work
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Admit it. You’ve had days at work where it takes a Herculean effort to stay awake and concentrate.


A new study by the Virgin Pulse Institute found that 76% of the U.S. workforce is tired most weekdays. What’s more, 40% of employees (admitted) they’ve dozed off during the day once per month. And it’s not just during the post-lunch lull.

A survey by Blue Jeans Network discovered that 6% of people confessed to dozing off while on an audio-only conference call.

It’s no wonder. There’s a yawning divide between the amount of sleep recommended –between seven and nine hours per night–and the actual time we’re getting shut-eye. Though it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, the National Sleep Foundation reports that one in five American adults show signs of chronic sleep deprivation, making the condition a widespread public health problem.

Jennifer Turgiss, a coauthor of the study and director of the Virgin Pulse Institute, says, “Showing up to work sleep deprived can be the equivalent of showing up to work intoxicated.”

As for those who wear their busy badge as a medal of honor, Turgiss says, “Workaholics may be able to power through sleep deprivation for a short amount of time. But neglecting to take it easy and get solid sleep consistently not only takes a toll on the quality and quantity of employees’ work, it also plays a big role in their health.”

In addition to being linked to diseases such as obesity and high blood pressure, we’ve recently reported how pulling all-nighters is potentially hazardous to your brain’s health. Not to mention that the amount of sleep you get impacts your likelihood of cheating.


Turgiss says sleep-deprived employees are less energetic, productive, and able to manage stress. “Stress and sleep deprivation are cyclical, so stressful events of the day will keep them up at night, furthering their fatigue the following day,” she says. This spills over into other areas of our work lives, Turgiss explains, including what we eat (hello, doughnuts and candy) how often we exercise (can’t face the gym, too tired), or how we maintain other healthy habits that improve energy.

Cognitively, she says, “They’re more likely to make mistakes, suffer from accidents and injuries at work, or even fall asleep during important meetings.”

The cost of fatigue-related productivity is estimated at $1,967 per employee annually, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

What Causes Sleep Problems?

The Virgin Pulse Institute study found several factors that keep employees awake at night:

  • Temperature too high or too low (85.2%)
  • Their partner (71.9%)
  • Unwanted noise (68.6%)
  • Light – too bright (52.8%)
  • Mattress (40%)
  • Young children (35.9%)
  • Medical condition that disturbs sleep (10.2%)

How to Finally Catch Some ZZZ

Turgiss says that besides these physical and environmental disruptors, stress and an unquiet mind were the top factors preventing employees in the Virgin Pulse study from getting to sleep or staying asleep throughout the night. She says that while cutting back on alcohol or caffeine consumption, eating smaller meals before bed, or day-time exercise can help improve sleep, winding down at night and using tactics to stop mental activity are key.

Her best practices:


Designate the hour or so before bed as “wind-down time” and stop checking emails or Facebook, and instead watch TV, read, practice deep breathing, pray, or imagine a beautiful place.

Put thoughts into a “box” that stays “closed” until the morning, repeat monotonous words, or think of something positive.

“In many cases, lots of little changes across all the factors inhibiting sleep helped people achieve better quality rest,” she says. As unique as our individual needs for sleep, Turgiss says different modifications will work better for different people. 

Turgiss says she was surprised to find out how many workers would have just dealt with the lack of sleep, rather than trying to find a solution to improve it. “Anything can keep employees up–it may not always be their work–but employers can still help by supporting employees’ sleep with programs, education, and workplace policies,” she says.

“Not only does this help people get some shut-eye, but it also improves their perception of the company they work for and engagement overall. In our study, many people said they “loved” their company for it.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.