Think it’s okay that you’re not getting eight hours of sleep a night because you’ve somehow managed to train your brain to work properly on just five or six hours of shut-eye? Think again. A recent study published online in the Journal of Vision shows that lack of sleep affects your performance when it comes to your tasks, no matter how awake or tired you may feel.

The study was conducted at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. According to senior study author and associate neuroscientist Jeanne F. Duffy, PhD, MBA, “Our team decided to look at how sleep might affect complex visual search tasks, because they are common in safety-sensitive activities, such as air-traffic control, baggage screening, and monitoring power plant operations. These types of jobs involve processes that require repeated, quick memory encoding and retrieval of visual information, in combination with decision making about the information.”

To find out how lack of sleep affect productivity in these kinds of jobs, researchers had 12 participants spend one week sleeping 10 to 12 hours each night before having them take computer tests involving search tasks, thereby making sure they got ample amounts of rest. This helped the researcher set a baseline for performance. After the first week, the participants spent the next three weeks getting between five and six hours of sleep per night and following a 28-hour daily cycle.

The researchers found that participants took longer to perform their tasks when they’d been awake for longer than when they regularly got a lot of sleep. Also, when participants worked between 12:00 AM and 6:00 AM, they were slower to complete their tasks than when they worked during the day.

Researchers were able to note some adjustment to the reduced hours of sleep, however. Participants performed the worse during the second week of the experiment (which was the first week they got fewer hours of sleep) than during the third and fourth, but they actually reported feeling more tired during the final two weeks.

“This research provides valuable information for workers, and their employers, who perform these types of visual search tasks during the night shift, because they will do it much more slowly than when they are working during the day,” said Duffy. “The longer someone is awake, the more the ability to perform a task, in this case a visual search, is hindered, and this impact of being awake is even stronger at night.”

Reading this probably has you thinking about switching to a day shift. But what if that isn’t an option? One thing you should definitely try to do is establish as regular a schedule as possible and ensure that you get 8, 10, even 12 hours of sleep so you at least come in to work well-rested.


(Photo by o5com via Flickr Creative Commons)

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