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Daylight saving time kills our productivity — this is how you deal

Here's how to get through the workday when daylight saving time, which begins this weekend, is killing you.
Image: Tired woman
Tired woman in office.Deagreez / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most of us never think about daylight saving time — except on the two days of the year we’re faced with the task of changing every watch, clock and timer we own. We update our homes to accommodate the change, but we rarely update our own sleep patterns to prepare for the change.

“About 70 percent of us are walking zombies even though we don’t realize it,” Dr. James Maas, former Professor and Chair of Psychology at Cornell University told Know Your Value. “The average person at work today gets 6.1 hours of sleep, which is — at least for most people — a one to two hour deficit for them to perform well. We get habituated to a low level of alertness.”

But it’s not just our alertness that becomes an issue when we operate at a sleep deficit. According to Maas, clinically diagnosable consequences of lack of sleep include anxiety, depression, slowed reaction time, decreased motor skills and increased risk of heart attack, stroke or cancer.

You may push those larger-picture consequences aside because sleep seems like a luxury rather than a necessity. But Maas cautioned that eliminating essential hours of sleep leads directly to an enormous decrease in cognitive performance. So when we’re tired, we lose the ability to process information, concentrate, remember, communicate, multitask and think critically. We also lose a bit of our sense of humor and socialization, two seemingly less significant traits that make a big difference in how we fit into our workplace culture.

“Employers are recognizing the costs of poor sleep in their employees,” said Dr. Ilene M. Rosen, professor of clinical medicine and program director for the Sleep Medicine Fellowship at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “There is a strong U-shaped relationship between absenteeism and presenteeism [on-the-job-work loss] and hours of sleep.” In a nutshell, employees are the most productive when they get seven or eight hours of sleep per night.

Sleep deprivation is so prevalent that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, an organization that Rosen presided over from 2017 to 2018, issued a health advisory this past fall about the link between insufficient sleep and work performance. Forward-thinking companies like Goldman Sachs, Johnson and Johnson, and Google have sought help from sleep experts, introduced online sleep coaching programs and added nap pods to their offices.

Not sure if you’re operating at a sleep deficit? Rosen noted, “The amount of sleep an individual needs is simply, individual. However, we generally say adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night.” As a rule, Maas said, we should each add one hour of sleep to our daily lives. Here are a few suggestions from the experts for improving sleep:

  1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every single day. (That includes weekends!)

  2. Aim for one long block of continuous sleep.

  3. Include anti-inflammatory foods in your diet.

  4. Do some form of moderate exercise, even if it’s just a daily walk with your dog.

  5. Prep your bedroom environment: keep it quiet, dark and cool (65 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit).

  6. Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. Even decaffeinated beverages contain ingredients that mimic caffeine’s effect on your body.

  7. Avoid alcohol within three hours of bedtime — it may help you go to sleep initially, but it wakes you up more often.

  8. Try herbal remedies, like hot chamomile tea.

  9. Avoid melatonin-blocking electronics 1 hour prior to bedtime.

  10. Cut down on screen time!

Daylight saving time can upend many of our established sleep patterns. Maas said that losing an hour of our day in the spring “is like having eastbound jetlag without ever leaving home.”

So how can we prepare ourselves for daylight saving time? Both experts recommended adjusting our sleep schedule as far as a week ahead of the change. Rosen laid out this plan: “If you normally go to bed at 11 p.m. and get up at 7 a.m., you would go to bed at 10:45 p.m. and wake up at 6:45 a.m.” You can move your sleep and wake time every day or two until your schedule lines up with the time change ahead. Maas agreed that this plan would “put money in your sleep bank account so the change doesn’t affect you as much.”

It should normally take just one day to adjust to the time change, but if you are sleep deprived Rosen said, “you may feel the effects of losing the hour when we ‘Spring Ahead’ for several days.” In fact, in the six days following a time change, there is a 6.3 percent increase in traffic fatalities.

What should you do if you still feel the affect of daylight saving time when you’re at work? Maas had a solution for this. Years ago, he coined the term “power nap,” which specifically refers to a 15- to 20-minute period of sleep to recharge your mind and body. He suggested putting your head down on your desk, or reclining in your car, and closing your eyes for a few, brief moments of relaxation.

Worried that your boss might catch you napping? Maas had a solution for that, too. “If your boss taps you on the shoulder, just wait a beat and say, ‘Amen … Now what can I do for you, boss?’”