The Dangerous Effects of Sleep Debt In the Workplace

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5 September 2023

The Dangerous Effects of Sleep Debt In the Workplace

Medical experts generally agree that we need six to eight hours of sleep per night, but most individuals rarely get that amount. The gap between the hours of sleep we need and the sleep we get is known as sleep debt.

More than one third of workers recently reported that they received less than the recommended seven hours of sleep. Certain occupations, particularly those that involve alternative shift work, tend to experience more sleep deprivation than others, but it is a problem that is widespread.

It is also a severe problem that puts companies, their workers and the public at risk.

Accidents and Injury

Sleep debt in the workforce has contributed to several catastrophic workplace accidents. The Chernobyl explosion, the Exon Valdez oil spill and the Challenger space shuttle disaster were all linked to human error caused by sleep debt.

The economic costs of sleep debt across the country are staggering. In 2015, sleep debt cost the U.S. economy $410 billion. That is equivalent to 2.28% of GDP.

There is no question that sleep-deprived individuals have slower reaction times. This can impact work on the factory floor, the office and especially on our roadways and highways. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that drowsy driving causes nearly 100,000 crashes and 800 deaths every year. As sleep debt is difficult to ascertain, the figure may be much higher.

The inattentiveness, slowed reactions and clumsiness associated with sleep debt put workplaces at a heightened risk. Workers suffering from sleep debt are a staggering 70% more likely to be involved in workplace accidents than well-rested employees, according to the National Sleep Foundation. They are also more likely to die in those accidents.

One of the most concerning aspects of sleep debt is that sufferers are often unaware that they even have a problem. Unlike many physical conditions, those who suffer from sleep debt may not be fully aware of the limitations it causes. They may underestimate or ignore their symptoms and the effects that sleep deprivation can have on their physical and cognitive abilities. They may also believe themselves to be capable of handling things when they are not.

This can lead to both risk-taking behavior and poor judgement.

Productivity and Performance

Sleep debt can impact productivity and job performance in several ways. Sleep-deprived individuals respond slower and tend to be less vigilant in completing tasks. Communication, flexible thinking, short term and working memory are also negatively affected and can lead to increased errors. Learning and improving newly acquired skills can be much more difficult for workers suffering from sleep debt.

Sleep debt can cause your workers to perform jobs incorrectly or cause them to forget to complete specific tasks altogether. Lost productivity is one resulting cost to companies. However, reputational costs and of course the high price of accidents and errors caused by sleep-deprived workers will also impact your workplace.


Employees experiencing sleep debt are far more likely to miss work. That absenteeism adds up to 1.2 million lost workdays every year. General tiredness is one reason. Since sleep debt can also negatively impact immune systems, illness also plays a role in absenteeism linked to sleep debt.

Long Term Physical Effects

Sleep debt can lead to a myriad of chronic physical conditions, many of which can be fatal. These severe physical conditions can include:



• Stroke


Cardiovascular Disease

• Kidney Disease

• Weakened Immune System

Mental Health Effects

Sleep problems have long been associated with mental health conditions. However, researchers are beginning to view sleep debt as a cause as well as a symptom of mental health problems. Sleep debt is a significant risk factor for depression. It can also precede anxiety disorders as well as worsen symptoms and prevent recovery. In bipolar patients, sleep debt can trigger manic episodes and relapses. ADHD has been increasingly linked to sleep debt, as have hyperactivity, inattentiveness and emotional instability, all of which can be problematic in the workplace.

Sleep cleanses the brain of toxic proteins. Sleep debt can lead to a build-up of these proteins which is linked to the development of Alzheimer’s.

Serious sleep debt can also lead to more dramatic effects, including paranoia, hallucinations, mania and memory loss. However, even the less dramatic effects such as moodiness, lack of focus or irritability can be detrimental to your workplace environment. These conditions will cause additional stress and frustration for both the sleep debt sufferer and his or her co-workers.

What You Can Do

Nearly 40% of adults reported falling asleep during the day without meaning to. 50-70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders. These are your workers. Sleep debt is a growing problem that is not going away anytime soon. And, it is one that an increasing number of employers are being forced to deal with.

Some workplaces, particularly those with shift workers, are incorporating dedicated break rooms and even napping rooms. This approach has made a tremendous difference in the alertness of medical staff, for example. While this isn’t an option for all employers, there are other ways that employers can help prevent the dangerous effects of sleep debt. One is creating a work culture that makes sleep a priority both in general expectations and in workplace health programs. Employers can also help by ensuring they:

• Schedule safely with clearly delineated work times, including rest breaks.

• Educate their employees as well as managers about the dangers of sleep deprivation and where workers can find help if they need it.

• Train managers to recognize the signs of sleep debt and what they can do to help reduce sleep debt-related dangers in your workplace.

• Assess with workplace tools that can help workers evaluate their sleep debt and support that offering with advice based on these assessments.