Policy and science are in conflict.  A real life example.

In the last two months, at least seven air traffic controllers have fallen asleep while working overnight shifts.  Air traffic controllers may choose their shifts, and many choose a shift schedule called a 2-2-1, or the rattler shift – two swing shifts, two daylight shifts and one night shift.  A minimum of eight hours must be taken between the second day shift and the overnight shift.  Controllers choose this shift pattern because it allows them three days off between shifts.

In response to the news of sleeping controllers, Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, insisted that air traffic controllers would be well rested and professional.  He increased the minimum time between shifts from eight to nine hours, but he also said that napping would not be tolerated.

Harrison and Horne discuss the issues related to sleep deprivation.  Lack of sleep affects the pre frontal cortex in the following ways:

  • impaired language skills-communications
  • lack of innovation
  • inflexibility of thought processes
  • inappropriate attention to peripheral concerns or distractions
  • over-reliance on previous strategies
  • unwillingness to try out novel strategies
  • unreliable memory for when events occurred
  • change in mood including loss of empathy with colleagues
  • inability to deal with surprise and the unexpected

Basically, the opposite of all the things you would want an air traffic controller to experience who might be watching your plane.

Harrison and Horne also made this interesting observation.  The nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Davis-Beese, and Rancho Seco were all made in the early morning.  In each case the managers on duty misdiagnosed the depth of the problem, and showed an inflexibility of thought process and an over-reliance on previous strategies.

They also discuss the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident concluded that the decision to launch should have been made “based on engineering judgments … but that irregular hours and lack of sleep contributed significantly” in the decision making process.  Further, three of the 13 managers in the decision making process to launch slept less than eight hours in the 48 hours between January 26 and January 28, with one sleeping less than five.

Harrison and Horne also point out that the use of stimulants only marginally affects pre frontal cortex activity.  Coffee is not really an option.

Maybe you are not an air traffic controller or someone who works on the Space Shuttle.  Can you still work long hours without a degradation in performance?  No – at some point lack of sleep affects us all.  It does not matter what your job is.  Highly committed people tend to work long hours.  In fact, many of us take great pride in—and get recognized by our superiors for— outworking everyone else in the room.

The science shows that while we can force ourselves to stay awake, we lose function fairly rapidly.  We also tend to deny that we are having functional loss – we do not self-monitor well.  When stating policy we are quite capable making dogmatic pronouncements such as, “We will not pay our employees to nap…we expect them to be well rested and professional”.

Nasa research in 1999 shows that we are built to want to sleep at two times during a 24 hour period – 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm and 3:00 am to 5:00 am.  Naps are quite helpful in countering these cycles.  A 1994 study performed by NASA demonstrated that naps improve performance when compared to those who do not nap.

Culturally, we tend to deride things that fall outside our definition of work.  Unfortunately, sleep and rest are considered leisure activities, when in fact both are important components in maximizing our considerable mental, emotional, and physical abilities – all things needed to do our best work, consistently.

Policy, in this case, should follow the science, not conflict with it. Let them nap—just plan for it so it is done safely and purposefully.