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How a bad night's sleep can ruin your career
Roughly a third of us are chronically sleep deprived and report sleeping less than six hours a night on average
Without those full eight hours, you could be responsible for a nuclear meltdown... if you work at a nuclear power plant.
Without those full eight hours, you could be responsible for a nuclear meltdown... if you work at a nuclear power plant. Thinkstock

For 20th century masters of the universe, getting four hours of sleep a night was a badge of honor. How could a C-suite executive sleep more and truly be successful? Today, that axiom has been turned on its head.

Skimping on sleep on a nightly basis could compromise critical work skills in ways you may not even realize.

"Sleep is the most important tool any of us have in terms of productivity, as well as creativity and innovation," says Patty Tucker, a sleep specialist and physician's assistant in the Napa Valley area.

Roughly a third of us are chronically sleep deprived and report sleeping less than six hours a night on average, according to the CDC. Among shift workers such as police, doctors, and nurses, a lack of sleep typically makes people less alert and more prone to accidents, according to studies cited by the National Sleep Foundation. They get by with less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per 24-hour period.

In today's 24/7 economy, sleep becomes a problem only when we're ill or suffer from chronic issues such as sleep apnea or other sleep-related conditions that require medical attention. Yet acute or chronic insomnia affects nearly a quarter of all U.S. workers, resulting in 367 million lost workdays per year and a cost to employers of nearly $63.2 billion annually in medical expenses and lost productivity. On top of that, 83 percent of Americans say they do not always get a good night's sleep on a regular basis, according to the 2013 Rx Sleep Survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Targeted Medical Pharma, Inc., a Los Angeles-based biotechnology company.

Healthy people need to appreciate the importance of getting a good night's sleep — and make sure they get it for reasons that go beyond physical health. "Sleep should not be at the bottom of our priority list," says Tucker. "It's important for our health but also critical for our brains."

Here are just a few ways sleep deprivation may be hurting us in the workplace.

LEARNING, MEMORY, AND CRITICAL PROBLEM SOLVING
Sleep takes place in different stages, including REM sleep, or dreaming sleep. A full seven or eight hours of normal sleep should be enough to rejuvenate the mind and body.

"In the first four hours of an eight-hour sleep, we spend more time in slow-wave sleep, when we get most of our hormonal balancing, tissue repair and physical replenishment," says Tucker. "It's not until the second half of a full night's sleep that our brain functions get priority. Memory and learning are consolidated during REM sleep. Very good studies from Stanford, the University of Chicago and others show that learning consolidation requires a full night of sleep."

Sleep deprivation was found to have been a significant factor in the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island — as well as at the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Investigations into the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, plus the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, also found that sleep deprivation among those managing the operations played a role in those accidents.

ETHICAL DECISION MAKING
"Studies have proven that ethical decision making is changed by sleep deprivation," says Patty Tucker. "In general, sleep deprived people are unable to understand the nuances required to make fair decisions. Their responses tend to be more rigid and inflexible."

A study out of Duke University found that sleep-deprived individuals tended to make choices that emphasized monetary gain. It's why "sleep deprivation makes gambling more tempting for many people," said Scott Huettel, PhD, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. "Late-night gamblers are fighting more than just the unfavorable odds of gambling machines — they're fighting a sleep-deprived brain's tendency to implicitly seek gains while discounting the impact of potential losses," said Vinod Venkatraman, the study's lead author.

CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION
"Dreams [during REM sleep] spark innovation through out-of-the-world thinking. In the process they help you create a world on your own terms," according to Yatin J. Patel, M.D., author of Sleep Well, Lead Well.

All sorts of "'aha' moments have occurred during REM sleep," says Tucker. There are plenty of examples in the world of pop culture to prove it. Paul McCartney, for example, has explained he wrote the great Beatles song "Yesterday" after awaking from a dream while living in a London flat: "I had a piano by my bed. I woke up one morning with a lovely tune in my head… I went to the piano and found the chords to it… It came to me in a dream."

The great golfer Jack Nicklaus said years ago that he dreamed about a way to fix his club swing — while thriller writer Stephen King has said the inspiration for his book Misery came to him in a dream... or maybe that was a nightmare.


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