The most effective tips on how to stay awake at work

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

Tiredness at work: Your relentless enemy

Imagine heading to work in the morning, full of hope and energy, only to find yourself losing in the fight to fatigue. Tiredness usually seems to get the better of you at work. Moreover, this has been a constant problem. You have tried everything—loads of caffeine, the intermittent smoke, but nothing seems to work for you. It is now not only harming your work performance but also making work less enjoyable. In some occupations, a lack of focus can even be dangerous.

As far as being tired at work is concerned, you must trust that there are studies that have proven you are not alone. According to a recent study, 76% of the employees admitted that they did feel tired at work, 53% feel less productive and 44% had trouble focusing. About 40–50% admitted that they were unhappy with the quality of sleep they had. But what could be causing this tiredness? It is definitely not physical activity (unless striking away at the keyboard involves an exercise we are yet to define).

The Biology of Sleep

During sleep, which is a complex physiological process, our brain is still quite active. An EEG monitors and measures the electrical activities of the brain during sleep. The human brain experiences two different eye movements during sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM).

NREM is composed of four different stages. Stage 1 is a semiconscious and transitional stage between wakefulness and sleep that is very brief. Stage 2 is the first stage of deep sleep when the sleeper is unaware of the surroundings but may be easily aroused. Stage 3 is called slow-wave sleep where it becomes more difficult to awaken the sleeper. Body temperature drops and metabolic activity slows down. The next stage, or Stage 4, involves the deepest sleep. This is a time of energy conservation and repair of the immune system.

Sleep then moves into the REM phase. Here, one is temporarily paralyzed with the exception of the eyes. The eyes move rapidly, heartbeat rate and breathing are irregular, and dreaming occurs. REM helps the body by improving mental faculties and memory storage and retention.

At the end of REM, sleep usually progresses to the lighter stages of sleep and the cycle is repeated again. Each cycle’s duration is 90 to 120 minutes and can happen 4 or 5 times during an 8-hour sleep.

The disruption of sleep leads to differential effects on alertness and wakefulness depending on the stage at which the subject is awakened. If a subject is awakened during the first or second stages, the alertness level is quite high. However, if the subject is awakened during the third or fourth stages, the alertness level is low and the subject may have what is called “sleep inertia”.

What is sleep inertia?

Sleep inertia is a transient period that lasts from between 5 and 15 minutes where the subject moves from sleep to wakefulness. Sleep inertia has a negative effect on cognitive functions and alertness. Therefore, it is of importance determining alertness in environments where people are generally sleep deprived. It is also crucial in an instance where a person is woken up from very deep sleep at home to deal with a crisis.

Awakening abruptly from deep sleep could be a cause of mental fatigue and tiredness resulting from sleep inertia. However, it is immediate and goes away after a while. Though it may have a long-term effect as well, this still does not totally explain why people feel sleepy at work. The next section will help answer that.

The Epworth Sleep Scale

The Epworth Sleep Scale was first developed by Dr. Johns in 1990 and later slightly modified in 1997. He wanted to assess the daytime sleepiness of patients under his treatment of Sleep Medicine. The questionnaire was named after the Epworth Hospital where he served as a doctor, and where he later established the Epworth Sleep Centre in 1988.

In the ESS questionnaire, people are asked to rate themselves from 0 to 3 (4-pont scale) on their chances of feeling drowsy or falling asleep while engaged in 8 different activities.  These eight activities have different somnificities. Somnificity is defined as the ability of a posture, activity, or situation to induce or impede sleep in the majority of the people. These activities are the kind that most people usually engage in, although not necessarily every day.

This means that the ESS score (the sum of 8 item scores, 0-3) is between 0 and 24. The higher the ESS score, the higher is the chances the person has of falling asleep or their ‘daytime sleepiness’. ESS takes only two or three minutes to answer but the insight it provides is very valuable. You can avail of this questionnaire in several languages.

The 1997 version of the ESS is widely accepted as the version that can be used by most adults. You need a license to use it, and you may or may not be charged for it.

Causes of sleepiness at work

There are several reasons why you may be feeling sleepy at work. Most of these reasons lead to a lack of proper sleep, which in turn leads to sleepiness. Some of those reasons are:

Restless legs syndrome (RLS)

Restless legs syndrome involves unpleasant sensations in the legs. There is also a strong urge in those with RLS to move their legs. RLS can cause jerky leg movements every 20 or 30 seconds through the night. The symptoms of RLS usually get worse during rest or sleep. Sometimes the symptoms of RLS are so bad that it is mistaken for insomnia.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea happens for about 10 seconds when the upper airway collapses during sleep. This happens for two reasons. The first is when there is an obstruction in the airway, called obstructive sleep apnea. The second case involves the brain is unable to send signals to the muscles that control breathing. This is called central sleep apnea. This can happen hundreds of times during sleep, leading to poor breathing and the disruption of sleep. Sleep apnea if untreated can cause sleepiness at work.


Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder. It causes disabling daytime sleepiness and other symptoms. It is related to the dreaming period of sleep called REM. With narcolepsy, REM periods can occur throughout the day. There is not only drowsiness but also “sleep attacks”, which are brief uncontrollable moments of sleep. These sleep attacks can disrupt your work, causing severe dips in your performance.

Occupational Hazards and Sleep

About 16% to 20% of all accidents and 29% to 50% of deaths and serious injuries resulting from accidents of motor vehicles in the United States are supposed to be associated with driver drowsiness. Also in a survey of junior doctors, about 42% admitted to at least one fatigue-related clinical error in six months.

There are hours of service limits for truck drivers as fixed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The driving is limited to a 14-hour consecutive window even if you take breaks in between like a short nap or a lunch break. Once you have reached this 14-hour limit, you must be off duty for at least 10 hours before you can get back to work. Truck drivers are also not allowed to drive more than 60 hours a week.

In New Zealand, it is stipulated that a doctor’s shift cannot last more than 16 hours and that there should be a break of at least 8 hours between shifts. Also, doctors are not required to work more than 72 hours a week.

The occupational hazards and errors at work could be related to the lack of sleep that people usually engaged in these occupations have. In a field study that monitored the sleep of 202 members of a cabin crew during a 3–4 week period, it was shown that they obtained an average of 6.3 hours sleep on free days and 5.7 hours of sleep on workdays.

They obtained even less sleep when operating international flights (the mean was 4.9 hours). In a large‐scale survey with 9180 cabin crew, 84% percent reported being fatigued while on duty, of which 71% reported that their safety‐related performance was affected.  Sleep loss in the case of aircrew happens not just because of the irregular work hours but also because of the disruption of the circadian rhythms because of traveling across multiple time zones.

Odd shifts and sleep

Working an odd shift can also impact your performance negatively. This is because all of us have a chronotype. A chronotype is what determines the time of the day when one is most active. It is affected by a person’s genetics and modified by age, activity, and the environment. Some of us are active during mornings (morning people) whereas others are during evenings (evening people). We also have a circadian system.

The circadian rhythms form the biological clock, which has a rhythmic cycle of about 24 hours, regulating our sleep-wake cycle. It is affected by internal and external factors. Some of them are exposure to light, the food we consume, our social life, and exercise and other physical activity. The circadian system, our biological watch, is highly resistant to change. It is very difficult for it to adjust to rapid changes in work/rest schedule at work. This means that if you work an odd shift that is different every day, your body will have a hard time adjusting to it.

An obvious result of this is lack of sleep, which will, in turn, lead to excessive sleepiness. A lack of sleep could also lead to mood shifts and depression in employees working odd shifts. In addition, WHO has cited that working an odd shift is a potential carcinogen.

Tips to stay awake at work

There is no substitute for a good night sleep, but if you did not have one, there are some tips that might help you stay awake at work and give it your best.

Go for a walk before work

Go for a walk in the morning when the sun is up and it is still pleasant. A good amount of fresh air and movement before you start work can raise your energy levels and keep you alert at work.

Take a nap before work

Taking a nap immediately before work hours could also get you alert and focused for the workday ahead. This is especially so if you are working an odd shift or work in staggered shifts. You only need to nap for 15 to 20 minutes before the work shift to make sure you remain focused through the day.

Take activity breaks

If your job requires that you sit or stand still for too long, take breaks frequently. If you sit at a computer or at a cash register, take a few activity breaks whenever possible. Take a walk when you get that phone call, for instance.

Drink water

It may not be sufficient to only just a lot of coffee though it may help initially. Drinking enough water will help you more. This is because hydration can help you focus more on your work.

Keep your workspace bright

If you work during the day and if you are allowed to keep the windowpanes open, do so as this can let sufficient light in. This will reduce the stress on your eyes and improve your concentration. At night, turn that extra bulb on to make sure your workspace is well lit.

Get the easy stuff out of the way

When you are tired, it is difficult to focus on complex tasks. So get the easy ones in order. Filling out some documents, rearranging your desktop, etc. all count toward this. As you complete these simpler tasks, your energy will return. Now pick up that Gordian Knot, that complicated problem you have always wanted to solve. You will find a solution in no time at all.

Keep strong scents around you

You can keep scented candles at your desk. Choose strong scents such as jasmine, citrus, etc. You can rub the essential oils on your hands and temples to feel energized.

Listening to energizing music

Listening to energizing music like rock or pop can also get you energized for the workday. You could do this at work, using headphones, if it is permitted, or you could listen before your work starts.

Final Words

Feeling tired or sleepy at work can make your workday not as productive as you or your employer would want it to be. This is an undesirable situation for both you and your employer. You can avoid this by following the simple tips mentioned in this article. This will ensure that you do not feel tired or sleepy at your workplace and boost your productivity.



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