Workaholism and Sleep Problems

There is a direct correlation between excessive work and sleep problems.

Insomnia and other sleep disorders cause workplace absenteeism and reduced productivity, but the flip side of that coin is that too much work causes poor quality sleep.

Night work – workers on the night shift – have been the topic of many epidemiological studies. But even people who work day shifts and work long, long hours can have sleep problems, too. People of concern here are those who work into the night from the day, work two jobs or perform any type of job between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Excessive work has also been found to interrupt sleep patterns and cause sleep problems. People who are constantly “on the go” and travel a lot suffer greatly from jet lag. Problems range from getting to sleep to waking in a timely manner. Public health officials base this on the behavioral and physiological measurements, using information from sleep logs and sleep laboratory testing. Workaholics suffer effects similar to those of jet lag. Under continuously excessive work, the body does not have a chance to develop regular circadian patterns and sleep problems result.

There are obviously parallels to the effect of stress on sleep patterns, but it might not just be stress that is causing the sleep disturbances. Too much stimulation - hyperarousal - is a more likely cause. Especially for people middle-age and older, it is just not easy to shift gears and relax at night after heavy work.

A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine concluded that excessive work and sleep disorders have a direct correlation. A study on individuals who worked over 60 hours a week at a veterans hospital concluded that over 76% reported sleep difficulties including problems falling or staying asleep, falling asleep at inappropriate times, excessive total sleep time, and abnormal behaviors associated with sleep. Abnormal behaviors included sleep walking and sleep tremors.

"Fatigue is the best pillow." - Benjamin Franklin

Sociologists point to the perception that sleep deprivation is a sign of fortitude and manly virtue. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb that allowed white collar workers to labor into the night, was famous for sleeping little. He even conducted job interviews at 4 AM, presumably as a test of the candidate and as a signal of what was expected.

A large study published in 2008 found that 85.7% of people aged 15 years and over reported suffering from at least one sleep problem over the previous 12 months caused or worsened by jobs and work overload. Sleep deprived people suffered from more work-related accidents, muscular problems, back problems, concentration problems and heart disease. Males seem to have a higher incidence rate of work-related accidents due to the sleep problems than women. The doctors involved in the study concluded that these health problems were directly related to sleep problems caused from occupational overwork.

A study of Japanese nurses found those with workaholic tendencies did indeed have excessive daytime sleepiness and a feeling of subjective sleep insufficiency.

The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.

- Ecclesiastes 5:12

A study cited in Industrial Health in 2005 found insomniacs in the United States have an average monthly sick absence rate that is 1.4 times greater than people without sleep troubles. And figures from the National Commission on Sleep Disorders suggest insomnia in the workplace costs the American economy between $92 and $107.5 billion a year in absenteeism and workplace disability, lost productivity, mistakes, and accidents. In the United Kingdom that figure was put at £10-12 billion ($18-21 billion) a year.

Harvard Business Review: Attacking the Sleep Conspiracy - interview with director of Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine.

Ways of Dealing

Experts would love everyone to have a regular work schedule. Other demands and values get in the way, and workers have to (or want to) work excessive hours sometimes. A general awareness of the value of sleep may help here - both on the part of the worker and his or her management.

Hard workers often turn to performance-enhancing drugs, including caffeine or harder stuff, to cope with less sleep and more work. The stimulant modafinil can be prescribed for those with shift-work sleep disorder, and is used off-label (and sometimes without a valid prescription) by people who want to stay alert in the face of overwork.

Good sleep hygiene practices may help optimize the time in bed. (We always recommend improving sleep hygiene whenever a sleep problem arises.)

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