Insomnia Exacts a High Price on the Job
< Oct. 03, 2012 > -- If you struggle with insomnia, you may not nod off at your desk at work, but sleepiness on the job might lead you to make errors you would catch if you were fully rested.
A new study says that insomnia in the U.S. workforce causes thousands of job-related accidents each year and costs companies billions of dollars.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School looked at data on about 5,000 people who answered a phone survey in 2008 and 2009. All participants had health insurance, spoke English, and were employed. Each was paid $20 to participate in the survey.
The researchers estimated that about 20 percent - or about 1,000 - of the participants suffered from insomnia for at least 12 months.
About 5.5 percent of those who appeared to have insomnia said they caused accidents or made errors at work that cost at least $500, compared with 4 percent of those who didn't seem to have insomnia.
Accidents and errors included mishaps such as making a mistake on an assembly line that shut it down, getting into a car accident while on the job, and making miscalculations.
"Accidents and errors directly affect the corporate bottom line," says lead author Victoria Shahly, Ph.D.
Insomnia is linked to about 7 percent of all costly workplace accidents and errors, and 24 percent of the overall cost of the mishaps, Dr. Shahly says. She estimates that the cost of the mishaps related to insomnia is $31.1 billion.
Kevin Morgan, Ph.D., at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, says the study offers an important look at an "under-researched" topic.
Until now, researchers have tried to understand the effect of sleeplessness on work by focusing on how it contributes to employees staying home from their jobs, Dr. Morgan says. "But this research is directed at people screwing up at work."
Insomnia can often be successfully treated with cognitive behavioral therapy. Sixty to 70 percent of people with insomnia can sleep easier with four to five hours of cognitive behavioral therapy, Dr. Morgan says.
The study was published in this month's issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
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Your Sleep/Wake Cycle
You have two body processes that regulate your sleeping and waking periods. These are called sleep/wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock. With sleep/wake homeostasis, the longer you are awake, the greater your body senses the need to sleep. If this process alone was in control of your sleep/wake cycles, in theory you would have the most energy when you woke up in the morning and be tired and ready for sleep at the end of the day.
But your circadian biological clock causes highs and lows of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. Typically, most adults feel the sleepiest between 2 and 4 a.m. and between 1 and 3 p.m., which explains those after-lunch yawns. Getting plenty of regular sleep each night can help to offset these sleepy lows.
Your internal clock is regulated by an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN is located in the hypothalamus. The SCN is sensitive to signals of dark and light. When the optic nerve in your eyes senses the morning light, the SCN triggers the release of cortisol and other hormones to help you wake up. But as night falls and darkness settles, the SCN sends messages to the pineal gland. This gland triggers the release of the chemical melatonin to make you feel sleepy and ready for bed.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.
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Archives of General Psychiatry - The Associations of Insomnia with Costly Workplace Accidents and Errors
CDC - Work Schedules: Shift Work and Long Work Hours
National Sleep Foundation - Shift Work and Sleep