Sleep Debt

By Michelle Cohen

We have all heard of the National Debt, student loan debt and credit card debt, but what about sleep debt? Is that really a thing?  Indeed, it is! And sleep debt is encroaching upon your life in insidious ways. According to the National Sleep Foundation, we humans need an average of eight hours of sleep per night. Skimp on your sleep, and your body craves it even more. Your reaction times slow down. All sorts of problems begin to emerge…

In May 2016, the National Sleep Foundation published the conclusions of its Drowsy Driving Consensus Panel. It determined that it is unsafe to operate a motor vehicle when sleep deprived. If you slept less than two hours in the prior 24 hours, then you are too sleep deprived to get behind the wheel of a vehicle. It concluded that most healthy drivers would likely be impaired with only three to five hours of sleep during the prior 24 hours. In fact, not sleeping and getting behind the wheel can impair you in the same way as driving with a blood-alcohol content that deems you legally drunk in all 50 states.

I don’t know about you, but, boy, have there been lots of times when I had a bad night’s sleep—five hours would be considered a lot in some instances. Then I would get up, get dressed and go off to work. Those were dangerous rides to work, according to this study.  If you “under sleep” by one hour per night, at the end of the week you “owe” your sleep bank seven hours. If you are like my college-aged kids and think sleeping a really long time on Saturday and Sunday will make up for things, you are wrong. You are then throwing off your natural sleep rhythms and setting yourself up for failure on Sunday night.  

Look, we have all been there. It is Sunday night and your mind is in overdrive thinking of the 1,000,000 things you need to accomplish during the week, or maybe just on Monday! Next thing you know, you are not sleeping, or not sleeping soundly. Starting the week off that way is just a total bummer—no better way to express it!

We “know” what we are “supposed” to try to do…go to bed just 15 minutes earlier each night, stick to a regular sleep and wake schedule, avoid caffeine and alcohol, exercise daily and relax before bed with a hot bath or a good book, instead of electronics (that means TV, phone, computer, iPad, Kindle and so on). A daytime nap may also help you catch up, if it’s possible for you to take one regularly. Though we hear these suggestions all the time, they are so gosh darn difficult to incorporate into our lives, am I right?

Starting to approach your sleep debt like a credit card or mortgage debt may help—you know you have to try to pay it down and every little contribution you make really does help in the long term. “The Social and Behavioral Costs of Sleeplessness to the Workplace” by Dr. Michael J. Breus (Huff Post, 03/15/2016) basically reinforces that we do not treat our sleep needs seriously like we do our financial or even our social health. 

Lack of sleep contributes to our ability to not be trusted for our teamwork and our personal and professional relationships suffer across the board. Skimp on the sleep and you can become short-tempered, quick to judge (emotionally volatile) and lack the ability to fully empathize with others and process emotional information properly. Additionally, our self-perception suffers, which makes us more likely to engage in risky behaviors and poor decision-making.  

These are all red flags for the things we need to incorporate into our multi-tasking jobs every single day. We need to be empathetic. We need to be the administrator with sound judgment, and we certainly need to have “good street cred” for our excellent judgment and decision-making skills.  

I hope even one thing here encourages you to try to get the proper amount of sleep if you know you are not getting enough of it. Sweet dreams!

Michelle Cohen is the Director of Human Resources and Office Manager of Schneck Law Group LLC in Livingston, New Jersey.

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