How to get through work during times when sleep is lacking

How to get through work during times when sleep is lacking

It’s not unusual to experience the 3 o’clock slump now and again; in fact, it’s human nature to experience a strong sleep drive between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. due to dips in our circadian rhythm. But if you regularly find yourself fighting to keep your eyes open while on the job, that’s a different story — and one with potentially serious ramifications (including significant costs to your workplace and the jeopardization of your position and/or your wellbeing). Read on to learn more about the effects of sleep deprivation on work plus helpful ways to get through the day when you’re feeling especially sleepy. 

How to get through work during times when sleep is lacking

The true cost of sleep deprivation

You may think you’re performing perfectly well despite all your yawning, but fatigued worker productivity (or lack thereof, as the case may be) costs employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually. And that’s not the only monetary issue at play when it comes to employees who need their Zzs; fatigue costs employers an estimated $136 billion annually in health-related lost productivity. 

Of course, money isn’t the only concern. In a study of 4188 U.S. workers, those who slept less not only had worse productivity and performance, but also scored lower in safety outcomes. For anyone with a lengthy commute — or individuals who drive as part of their job — that’s a huge problem. Research has also shown that sleep deprivation can have an adverse effect on how we communicate with others, which doesn’t only disrupt productivity but can also negatively impact the workplace environment.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t only apply to people who are up all night. Total loss of sleep tends to be better studied, but chronic partial sleep deprivation, which is what more people experience regularly, has been shown to significantly affect performance (both speed and accuracy). In one study, noticeable deterioration occurred quickly — and continued almost linearly — in a group that was allowed just three hours of sleep daily for seven consecutive days. Two other groups who were given five and seven hours in bed weren’t affected as quickly, but after two nights of restriction, performance suffered (more in the group that had only five hours). 

How to get through work during times when sleep is lacking

Causes of sleep disruption

A number of factors can contribute to a lack of sleep, many of which are situational and temporary (or at least easily treatable).


  • Daylight Saving Time
    Adjusting to an hour’s difference in when you need to go to bed — and wake up — can throw you for a loop at first, but it doesn’t take most people more than a week to overcome this time difference. 


  • Children and pets
    Research shows the transition to parenthood often includes exhaustion. If you’re responsible for small children or animals, any sleep pattern changes they experience (such as a nightmare phase for children or a new puppy needing to go potty at 2 a.m.) can significantly affect your ability to sleep through the night. Letting your dog sleep on your bed can have additional impact on your sleep.
  • Additional stress
    Whether it’s a looming deadline at work or an argument you had with your significant other, stressful thoughts and anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep and may even cause you to sleep fitfully. This stress may not be entirely negative, either, as excitement about an upcoming vacation or replaying a happy experience from earlier in the day could also be a factor in your ability to sleep.



  • A new or changing health issue or a new medication
    From hormonal changes to your level of discomfort while lying down and your ability to breathe easily and more, a wide variety of health- and medication-related factors can contribute to a lack of sleep. If you have concerns about known health-related issues that prevent you from falling or staying asleep, or have noticed a significant change to your ability to sleep well and can’t put your finger on any temporary factors that may be a cause, it may be time to talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to discuss options to help you sleep or treat any underlying causes for your sleeplessness.

How to get through a sleep-deprived workday

Deadlines and important meetings don’t care whether or not you got a solid night’s sleep, so sometimes you simply have to power through your exhaustion. Fortunately, there are some ways to do just that.

  • Drink coffee the smart way
    Caffeine is the preferred antidote to sleepiness for many an office worker, and that’s because it is a stimulant scientifically proven to give you an energy boost. However, it’s important to not overdo it, as too much caffeine can make you jittery (which isn’t much better for productivity than drowsiness). You should also aim to drink it in the early part of your work day rather than later on; a coffee break toward the end of your day may prevent or interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, perpetuating a cycle of sleep deprivation and caffeine dependency (what’s referred to in one study as a “coffee cycle”). 
  • Sniff some essential oils
    Mint isn’t the only scent that can provide you with a pick-me-up. Jasmine and citrus, similar to peppermint, can help you feel more focused and awake. If allowed in your office, you can use a diffuser or rub essential oils on your hands and temples. (Just be sure to read the label as some oils should be diluted before being applied to skin. If you find that a certain oil irritates your skin, you can also add a few drops to a cotton ball or tissue.) Brushing your teeth with a peppermint toothpaste can have a similar effect. (Plus, who doesn’t like having fresh breath and clean teeth?)
  • Get your blood pumping (outside, if possible)
    Sitting for long periods of time — or even standing in one place — can make anyone feel rather fatigued. Instead of sitting back and relaxing when you have a break, use that time to be active. That may mean walking around your office or doing some simple, workplace-friendly exercises such as stretches at your desk or some squats and lunges, but if possible, get outside, even if it’s only for a few minutes. That fresh air paired with a change of scenery and some activity could be just what you need to come back to your desk feeling refreshed. 
  • Sip an energizing herbal tea
    Hot beverages don’t have to be caffeinated to provide a bit of a boost. Peppermint tea, for example, is naturally caffeine-free so it won’t interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night. Just the smell of mint has been shown to reduce fatigue and increase alertness, so be sure to take a deep breath in through your nose as you enjoy that mug.
How to get through work during times when sleep is lacking
  • Drink plenty of water
    Dehydration has been proven to negatively affect the brain’s visual and motor performance. While that alone may not sound like a recipe for sleeping on the job, it does impact your ability to focus, and fighting a lack of focus can be absolutely exhausting. Besides, staying properly hydrated is good for you in lots of ways. If kicking back a few extra glasses of water sends you to the bathroom more often, that means you’re getting a little extra activity. It’s a win/win!
  • Switch to a new task
    Some duties — either because they’re boring, taxing, or time consuming — are more tiring than others. Research shows that extended periods of effort on a single task can lead to a decline in alertness. By switching to a new task, you will likely feel more alert because your brain is introduced to new stimuli — especially if it’s something you actually enjoy. If this is a problem you face frequently, especially if it often occurs at the same time of day, consider the order you tackle tasks and try to plan your easiest duties for times you feel most tired. Filing might not be what anyone would call invigorating, but it’s at least easy to do when you’re running on fumes.
  • Watch what you eat
    While we don’t mean to suggest you need to go on a diet, it can be helpful to focus on eating healthy foods that naturally boost energy, especially when it comes to the items you keep handy as snacks. Protein-rich foods such as hard-boiled eggs and nuts can provide lasting energy. Overdoing it on carbs and sugary foods, on the other hand, can lead to fatigue and decreased alertness. Certain foods actually help you sleep, and while they can be great in the evening, they’re probably not a good choice for lunch, especially if you’re struggling to stay awake. Pay attention to what — and when — you eat and how your food choices correspond to your energy levels. A healthy lunch that doesn’t leave you stuffed and lethargic followed by a small, healthy snack a couple hours later could help you feel attentive right up until five o’clock. 
  • Meditate
    Meditation has long been used as a way to tap into the focused mind, and there are many meditations (guided and otherwise) that can help you overcome your mid-morning or afternoon slump — possibly within a minute or less. You can search YouTube, use an app like Insight Timer or Buddhify, or simply research breathing techniques to boost your energy levels quickly and naturally.

If you’re having a hard time making it through the work day without a nap, you’re not alone. But you’re also not without options. Try a few of these suggestions to overcome your daytime fatigue and boost in your productivity.

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How to get through work during times when sleep is lacking