Poor sleep has huge costs for the workplace. But that isn't why we should care.

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

A few years back, I went to the federal courthouse in Philadelphia to cover a cop corruption trial for a local magazine. It was an important day — a key witness who had worked with the accused officers was giving testimony. I took my place in press row among other journalists, got settled in…

…and then I promptly fell asleep. Dead away. Missed a lot of the testimony.

At the next recess, a security officer in the courtroom told me I shouldn't be there if I couldn't stay awake. The problem? I couldn't. I'd been having sleeping problems for several years by that point, and I was increasingly having trouble disguising it at work. It was one thing to drift off and doze for a few minutes in the privacy of my office. It was another thing entirely to do it in a crowded courtroom, among my colleagues from all the city's top news outlets. It was one of the most humiliating days of my career.

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It turns out that I am far from alone in having my job disrupted by such issues. Gallup reported on Friday that poor sleep has a huge impact in the workplace: An estimated 7 percent of workers don't get the rest they need — which means they miss work more often, and that employers lose an estimated $44 billion a year in productivity. Those poor sleepers also tend to change jobs more often, the polling service said.

The professional consequences of all this are important, no doubt: I shifted away from full-time work to freelancing in part so I'd have the freedom to sneak off and take a nap when I needed. (When you work from home, nobody can see you nod off.) But it's distressing to see the issue framed mostly as a dollars-and-cents matter when it's so much more. People afflicted with sleep issues have higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and depression. I got all of it. Living with bad sleep makes it difficult to enjoy relationships and engage the world in normal ways: For years, I couldn't sit through a movie, read a book, or have dinner with friends without nodding off. I was miserable.

I went to a sleep clinic on the night of the Iowa presidential caucuses in 2020. They discovered the obvious — I had apnea — and something unwelcome: A CPAP machine didn't really help. Then the pandemic happened. I stopped eating so much fried restaurant food and mostly gave up coffee, fell asleep on the couch a few nights doomscrolling — but in a position that seems to have propped open my airways. One day, a few months into lockdown, I had a realization: I'd been sleeping through the night. And spending my days feeling awake and energetic. It felt like a miracle. It still does.

Can other people duplicate my results? I have no idea. What I do know is that these days, my weight is down. My blood pressure's a little more resistant to getting better, but I feel more alive than I have in years. Mostly, I feel rested. I'm a better, more engaged worker as a result — but more importantly, I'm a better, more engaged husband and father. And I'm convinced, more than ever, that sleep isn't just the key to a productive workplace. It's necessary to have a good life.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.