Falling Asleep at Work? It Could Be a Sign of a Bigger Problem

Falling asleep at work isn’t just embarrassing. It’s a sign that you’re carrying sleep debt. The good news: There are things you can control to prevent it.
Reviewed by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Woman falling asleep at work during a meeting.

It’s Wednesday afternoon, 20 minutes into a presentation by a coworker whose earnest efforts to capture attention are no match for the overwhelming feeling of sleepiness threatening to envelop you right in the middle of the meeting. More than once, you startle back into awareness and then look around nervously wondering: Was that just my thoughts drifting or did I actually fall asleep? Did anyone notice?

If this situation sounds painfully familiar, you’re not alone. A 2017 National Safety Council report found that 69% of employees are tired at work, and we suspect that’s a sizable undercount. The resulting decrease in company productivity and increase in safety-related incidents reported by employers also impacts workers on an individual level. No matter what your profession, “tendency to fall asleep on the job” is not something you want to see on a performance review.

If you find it difficult to keep your eyes open at work, we have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: The implications of falling asleep at work are probably worse than you think. You may not notice the cognitive decline leading up to the actual head-on-keyboard desk snoozing, but your focus and performance have almost certainly been downgraded significantly prior to the embarrassing incident. And the effects of not getting sufficient sleep at night — the most common cause of daytime sleepiness — can also make you more susceptible to burnout and health problems.

The good news? There is something you can do to help prevent daytime sleepiness and involuntary napping: Get the sleep your body needs at night. By prioritizing good sleep hygiene and learning to work with and not against the daily energy peaks and dips that are a natural part of your circadian rhythm, you can reduce your sleep debt and increase your effectiveness at work. 

In this article, we’ll reveal some surprising truths about falling asleep at work and share tips and strategies for getting better sleep at night to have more energy during the day. 

We’ll also explain the advantages of having a tool like the RISE app to automatically calculate the hours of sleep you’re getting and how much sleep you owe your body (your sleep debt) over a 14-day period. 

And because the app gives you a clear picture of your circadian rhythm, you can anticipate the daily peaks and dips in energy levels that are a natural and predictable part of your every day. Because top-notch job performance is not just about time management. It's about energy management.  

Here are seven truths about snoozing off during work hours and how to avoid it.

1. You Might Not Even Notice When It Happens

A man falling asleep at work

Maybe you've never woken up in a puddle of drool on your desk, but that doesn’t mean you’re never asleep on the job. Brief episodes that might register as losing your train of thought or “zoning out” could actually be microsleeps.

Microsleeps are involuntary episodes of unconsciousness (or partial unconsciousness) that can last a brief moment or up to several seconds. If your eyes actually closed, you may become aware that you nodded off when your head jolts back up and brings you back to reality. Microsleeps are more likely to occur during monotonous tasks — and are extremely dangerous when that task is driving. They’re usually a side effect of insufficient sleep and sleep deprivation. 

When you get the sleep your body needs, your “sleep switch” usually stays off during the day until bedtime. But when you’re chronically underslept, as soon as the body senses a slowing down (say in a tedious meeting), it may seize the opportunity to flip the sleep switch. And even in situations when your eyes don’t close, some areas of your brain may be asleep while the rest of the brain remains awake. So your eyes might be open, but your senses are switched off and unresponsive to the world around you.

2. High Sleep Debt Is Probably to Blame

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you owe your body — as compared to the sleep your body needed — over a 14-day period. It’s the number that best predicts how you feel and perform on any given day. 

High sleep debt is the most common cause of excessive daytime sleepiness, which increases the likelihood that you’ll nod off on the job. Keeping your sleep debt under five hours is the best way to keep your wits about you during the day. The RISE app automatically calculates your sleep need and tabulates your sleep debt for you, making it infinitely easier to keep track of your sleep debt as you follow our in-app guidelines for lowering it. 

It’s hard to overstate the value of having a convenient and reliable tool to get and keep your sleep on track, because our brains are not reliable judges of our own sleep deprivation. We tend to underestimate our sleep need, overestimate how much we've slept, and subjectively adapt to being sleep deprived. Study after study shows we get used to our subpar cognition and functioning to the point that we don’t even notice the change.

3. Nodding Off Is Just the Tip of a Problematic Iceberg

Although an embarrassing incident of dozing off during the workday might be what gets your attention, it’s almost certainly not a new problem. More likely, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem that has been developing below the surface: high sleep debt.  

Sleep deprivation impairs the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for problem solving, reasoning, organizing, planning, and executing plans — all processes critical to many jobs.  

Sleep debt also leads to reductions in neural activation and deficits in working memory and makes it more difficult to learn new information and acquire new skills. And when you take into account the fact that sleep deprivation can cause a 60% amplification in emotional reactivity but can also make you less empathetic, it’s easy to see how the career dangers of high sleep debt go way beyond the occasional desk doze. In fact, getting less than six hours of sleep each night is one of the best predictors of on-the-job burnout.

4. It’s Bad for Everyone’s Bottom Line 

Five stacks of gold coins

Presenteeism —  when employees are not fully functioning in the workplace because of illness, injury, or other conditions — leads to decreased productivity because workers are physically present at work but unable to fully perform their duties and more prone to making mistakes.

Accidents and mistakes made by any sleep-deprived worker can be not just dangerous but potentially costly. And for those in leadership roles, the financial stakes are even higher, because the trickle-down effect of a leader’s impaired abilities can potentially spell big problems for the company as a whole. 

When you consider that just two nights of restricted sleep can hamper decision-making and result in a 300% increase in cognitive lapses that reduce alertness and attention, the specter of widespread sleep deprivation among leaders across industries is alarming.

With more than a third of Americans not getting enough sleep, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has declared insufficient sleep a public health epidemic. A weakened immune system is one of sleep debt’s primary markers; sleeping less than 7 hours a night makes you three times more likely to catch the common cold

And the serious health problems associated with chronic sleep deprivation — obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, psychiatric disorders, fertility problems, cancer, and other chronic diseases — are translating into a workforce that is sicker, less productive, and more prone to absenteeism and presenteeism. 

Bottom line: Workers who don’t get enough sleep are less productive. That’s bad news for companies and, extrapolated further, bad news for countries around the world. For example, each year the U.S. loses an equivalent of about 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep. That’s almost 10 million working hours! 

5. Lowering Your Sleep Debt Can Help You Stay Alert

Since high sleep debt is behind the majority of falling asleep on the job incidents, lowering your sleep debt is the best way to avoid such incidents. Fortunately, the RISE app is purpose-built to help you lower your sleep debt.  

The first step is to determine the specific amount of sleep your body needs. The RISE app uses data from your phone — along with proprietary, sleep science-based models — to learn your unique sleep biology and calculate your personal sleep need in hours and minutes. 

The app automatically tabulates and keeps a running total of your sleep debt over the past 14 days. If your sleep debt is over five hours (the threshold for degraded performance), you can pay it down by getting extra sleep — as long as it doesn't disrupt your ability to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.

There are three main ways to pay down your sleep debt:

  • Bedtime: Going to bed earlier is the fastest way to pay off sleep debt. But don’t go to extremes. Keeping a relatively consistent bedtime, and one that still falls within your Melatonin Window (in the RISE app), makes it easier to get the sleep your body needs.
  • Naps: Instead of dozing off during a meeting, plan a well-timed nap, ideally during your afternoon dip. (The RISE app's Energy screen will show you the exact window you will experience this period of decreased energy.) Aim to keep your nap under 90 minutes — roughly the time of a full sleep cycle — to avoid interfering with your body’s ability to get a good night of sleep.
  • Wake time: It’s OK to sleep in a little later than your usual wake time, but only when you don't have another option. It's certainly better than carrying high sleep debt, but waking up more than an hour later than your regular wake time can throw off your circadian rhythm or internal clock.

6. You Can Avoid It by Aligning Your Schedule With Your Circadian Rhythm

Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that dictates your body’s ideal sleep and wake times over a roughly 24-hour period. At Rise we refer to it as your Energy Schedule because it also encompasses and predicts the pattern of natural peaks and dips in energy you experience each day. 

The Energy screen in the RISE app tells you the times of your body’s ideal wake time and bedtime each day, because keeping your sleep schedule in line with your circadian rhythm is one of the best things you can do to get the sleep your body needs on a consistent basis. The lower your sleep debt, the more energy you'll have to devote to your business or job (and life!). 

And when you plan your work day with your circadian rhythm in mind, you can schedule different tasks and activities based on your energy levels at each specific time of day. For example, first thing in the morning when your body is still transitioning out of sleep — your grogginess zone — is a good time to do easier tasks that don't require high levels of energy or focus. You might go over your calendar, check your email, or go for a walk. 

Important meetings and more challenging tasks should be reserved for the subsequent morning peak, when your energy surges and your mind becomes more focused. After that, it’s back to more low stakes activities — perhaps a short nap — during your afternoon dip when energy again wanes. 

Getting familiar with your circadian rhythm can help you anticipate and plan around your daily energy dips so you’re less likely to be surprised by the kind of sleepiness that might otherwise have caused you to nod off on the job. And having this strategic framework to add structure to your day can be especially helpful if you work from home. 

7. Healthier Habits Can Mean More Energy

Falling asleep at work: A man running outside in the morning

Maintaining circadian alignment is a vital part of getting the sleep and energy you need to perform at your best, and adopting good sleep hygiene habits can help. One of the keys to good sleep hygiene, the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep, is timing things right. For example, it’s fine to get an energy boost from a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. But drinking caffeine late in the day will likely make it harder to fall asleep that night.

Follow these guidelines for better sleep hygiene:

  • Keep a consistent wake time and bedtime, and don’t nap in the late afternoon or evening.
  • Expose yourself to light (preferably sunlight) soon after waking to signal to your brain that the day has begun.
  • Exercise regularly — ideally during daylight hours and definitely not in the three hours before bedtime.
  • Stop drinking caffeine 8-10 hours before bedtime, and avoid alcoholic beverages 3-4 hours before bedtime. (The RISE app will remind you of these exact cut-off times.)
  • Avoid or limit exposure to artificial lights after dark. Dim household lights and avoid blue light (or wear blue-light blocking glasses) in the 90 minutes before bedtime to support your body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
  • Set aside time to relax at the end of the evening to detach from the stress of your day and make it easier to transition into sleep. Take a warm shower or bath, meditate, or read a chapter of a novel.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary by keeping it cool, dark, and quiet. A white noise machine, ear plugs, blackout curtains, and an eye mask can help.

And when it comes to daytime energy levels, think holistically. Consider common sense practices and healthy habits that can contribute to your overall wellness. Stay hydrated, get plenty of fresh air, and avoid processed foods in favor of healthy snacks and whole foods. 

If you have specific questions about how your blood sugar levels or other factors might be affecting your energy levels, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about diet or lifestyle changes that might help.

If you’re in good health and have your sleep hygiene dialed in but are still experiencing sleep problems or low daytime energy, it might be time to see a sleep medicine specialist. He or she may want to screen you for sleep disorders like narcolepsy or sleep apnea that may make you prone to falling asleep while you’re trying to work. 

It’s Time to Wake Up to the Importance of Sleep  

Although some people may still see working hard on little sleep as a badge of honor, we’re thankful the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” ethos might be finally ebbing. In its place is a growing understanding of the importance of sleep in achieving peak performance in any sphere.

The science is unequivocal that sleep and productivity are not mutually exclusive; they’re two sides of the same coin. You cannot be productive without sleep. So prioritizing sleep and circadian alignment will make you a better employee and human, and, for employers, supporting them at work is not only the humane, compassionate route — it's in a business's best interest. 

Employers who recognize the importance of sleep and its impact on health and performance in the workplace — and companies that limit after-hours work and provide access to amenities such as napping booths and gyms — are the ones who will come out on top. And who knows, maybe one day all companies will prioritize employees’ sleep and make sleep debt management part of broader well-being packages that also support nutrition, fitness, and stress management. That’s what we’re working towards, at least!

In the meantime, at the individual level, taking these sleep matters into your own hands will help you show up as your best, most alert self at work. With the RISE app, it’s easy to monitor your sleep debt and tap into the wisdom of your circadian rhythm — for better sleep and better days.

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About Rise
Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
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Try 7 days free

The power behind your next best day

RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential

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