Stress, Fatigue, and Burnout: What to do now to finally get some sleep

ANW2W 2019-08-05 - Tired Workers

If you’re feeling tired, you’re not alone.  According to a recent NSC survey,

  • 73% of Americans reported that they felt too tired to function at work
  • 53% admitted they are less productive
  • 44% had trouble focusing

But is there an underlying cause for our fatigue?  Sleep deprivation may be the underlying factor.

Heavy workloads, extended work hours, and jobs that are cognitively or physically demanding are becoming the norm in the modern workplace.  OSHA has identified 9 risk factors in jobs that can increase a worker’s propensity for fatigue.  These include:

  • Working at night or in the early morning
  • Working long shifts without regular work breaks (either mandated by the employer or self-imposed by the employee)
  • Routinely working over 50 hours per week (NOTE: Japan has identified the 60-hour work week as a contributing factor to kairoshi, or death by overwork)
  • Long daily commutes to and from work

In the previously cited NSC survey, 97% of participants self-reported having at least one of these leading risk factors for fatigue in their jobs.

Are YOU one of the 97% who is at risk for occupational fatigue?

Why We Need Sleep

Unlike machines or robots, human beings have a hard-wired need for daily, restorative sleep.  Sleep is necessary for us to perform at optimal levels.  Unfortunately, ___% of American workers get the recommended 7-8 hours of restful sleep on a nightly basis.

According to NIH, 40 million American workers experience chronic, long-term sleep disorders; an additional 20 million have occasional problems with getting a good night’s sleep.  Insomnia is a clinical term covering a wide range of sleep disturbances, including:

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Waking too early in the morning (anecdotally this seems to be around 3:00 AM)
  • Feeling unrefreshed upon awakening

Prolonged sleep disorders that lead to a sleep deficit
have been linked to lasting physical and mental health problems. 

A sleep disorder is any “abnormal sleep pattern that interferes with physical, mental, or emotional functioning” (Anxiety and Depression Association of America).  One of the primary causes for sleep problems is stress.  According to a recent National Sleep Foundation Study, 43% of 13-64 year olds have lied awake at night due to perceived stress in the past month.

Stress-related sleep disturbances do not discriminate on age or gender, but employees whose jobs require cognitively demanding tasks may be more susceptible to fatigue:

  • Monotonous tasks that are unstimulating (such as jobs with little growth or development opportunities)
  • High alert tasks that require vigilance (such as assembly line work that requires constant monitoring of products for even slight abnormalities)
  • Repetitive tasks that use a limited number of muscles in their performance (such as data entry or other positions that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome)

According to OSHA, jobs that are at high risk for fatigue can be any job that requires sustained attention OR places significant cognitive or physical demands on the worker.

Sounds like just about every job across industries and organizational levels, doesn’t it?

Fatigue and Burnout

Stress and fatigue are closely associated with burnout.  But why?

A stressor is a situation or event, but the stress that we experience is the result of how we interpret and perceive the stressors.  Do our manager’s constant threats of termination threaten our financial well-being?  Challenge our self-confidence?  Undermine our feelings of self-worth?

While often viewed negatively, the human stress response is actually a protective evolutionary response that chemically enables us to effectively deal with important or dangerous situations.  In other words, our perception of the stressful situation triggers the fight or flight response of adrenaline and cortisol surges to support the heightened awareness and vigilance that are necessary to defend ourselves.

But here’s the problem:  our human bodies cannot endure a constant barrage of these hormones surging through our bodies.  In a constant, prolonged, heightened state of hypervigilant awareness, the cortisol and adrenaline trigger “rapid, anxious thoughts to occur at night” (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).

In other words, our survival instincts (when left unchecked), prevents our bodies from succumbing to sleep.

And here’s another problem:  bragging about our ability to function with little to no sleep has become a badge of honor for high-performing professionals.  It’s like your father’s fishing stories where the size of the trout eventually becomes the size of a whale!

But our professed need for less sleep is a delusion that stresses our bodies, decreases our mental energy and acuity, and contributes to the onset and maintenance of burnout.

Tips to Decrease Stress, Avoid Burnout…and Get Some Sleep

The modern workplace rarely offers opportunities to take a break from the demands of our jobs.  Workers are challenged by both the unrelenting organizational pressure to be more productive and our own self-imposed emotional need to prove our worth in and through our jobs.  This combination increases anxiety and limits the innate restorative power inherent in our bodies to reduce stress and avoid burnout.

Here are a few commonly used ways to sleep better (and why they work):

  • Reduce stress levels by meditating on your breath. All you need to do is observe each inhalation and exhalation – just let go and realize you only have to observe without doing   (After all, your breathing is automatic.)
  • Just try to move a little more each day – even If you don’t like to exercise (or believe that you “don’t have the time”). Walk around when you’re on your phone instead of sitting at your desk.  Take the steps instead of the elevator.  Park a little farther away from the front door in the parking lot.
  • Eventually add 10 minutes of exercise to your daily routine – make sure it’s something that you enjoy doing! Yoga is particularly good for relieving stress.  But don’t exercise immediately before going to sleep:  aim for morning or early afternoon exercise sessions.  Remember:  exercise releases mood-enhancing endorphins.
  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, quiet, and ONLY for sleeping. If you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes of lying down, go into another room in order to associate your bedroom only with restful sleep.

Now, here a few other helpful tips to enhance your sleep:

  • Live your life by your priorities – not everything is important. Spend the majority of your time on those tasks that are most important.  Break major projects into small, easily managed chunks.  You don’t have to do it all – so don’t refuse to delegate!
  • Play soothing music that you love – use headphones at work. Not only will this lower your blood pressure, but you’ll also find your mind and body slowly relaxing by releasing any pockets of tension.
  • Focus on others. One leading cause of stress and anxiety is a self-absorption with our problems.  By seeking ways to help others through volunteering, your changed focus can provide new insights into your own stressors – plus you’re better able to recognize and feel gratitude for what is good in your life!  (We often forget the good stuff when we’re stressed and burned out.)

But most importantly, make sleep a priority and recognize that our human need for restorative sleep is non-negotiable.  We need it.  Our bodies crave it.  And without it, we can’t enjoy our lives.

So, don’t overlook our human need for 7-8 hours of restful sleep each night!  Losing just 2 hours of needed sleep results in the same level of physical and cognitive impairment as consuming 3 beers (OSHA).

Learning to create a soothing sleep routine reduces stress and enables our body’s restorative powers to help avoid burnout.  So start making sleep an enjoyable priority!

Copyright 2019 G. A. Puleo

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