Sleepy Air Traffic Controllers? They Don't Need a Wakeup Call
Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 2, 2011 10:50 AM
Were you outraged by the recent report that yet another air traffic controller was caught napping during his late night shift?
Ray LaHood, our Transportation Secretary, certainly professed to be: "There is no excuse for air traffic controllers sleeping on the job," he said afterward. "We will do everything we can to put an end to this."
Give me a break, Ray. Or more specifically, give them a break.
This isn't about slacking on the job; it's about physiology. Specifically, it's about our Circadian rhythms.
Human beings are designed to be awake during the day, and asleep at night. The later it gets, the more fatigued we become, and the more our bodies crave sleep. It's no coincidence that many of the world's greatest human caused disasters have occurred late at night, from the explosions at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to the Exxon Valdez running aground, to the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhophal, India.
Which would you rather have: air traffic controllers who are permitted to take naps during their late night shifts, or air traffic controllers who stay awake but operate in a constant state of fatigue?
We can't have it both ways.
A decade ago, the FAA itself undertook a study of the effects of napping on midnight shift performance among air traffic controllers. One group was given two-hour naps, another 45-minute naps, and a third group no naps at all over four working nights.
It was a classic dose effect. The less time the controllers had to nap, the worse their performance became, specifically on tests of their vigilance—meaning their capacity to pay attention.
It's no different for anyone else working in the middle of the night. In another study, pilots on long haul flights who were given an opportunity to nap scored far higher on vigilance tests than those who didn't nap. Non-nappers fell into an average of 22 "microsleeps" during the critical last 30 minutes of their flights. Nappers fell into none at all.
The most important requirement for employees who work in safety-critical workplaces is to be fully alert. That's simply not possible if they're not fully rested, and especially not if they're working through the night.
LaHood has surely read the same studies I have. Unless he's completely dense, I assume it's politics that preclude his acknowledging it makes sense for flight controllers to build naps into their nights.
There is a broader point here. As a culture, we continue to undervalue and even demonize rest and renewal—to our collective detriment. Sleep and rest are the first things we're willing to sacrifice in the name of getting more done, even if the consequence is doing it poorly. Too many employers evaluate their employees by the number of hours they work rather than by the real value they generate. The archetypal hard worker still arrives at work at dawn, stays into the evening and brags about getting by on 5 or 6 hours of sleep.
Far better to get sufficient sleep, arrive later, leave earlier, and take intermittent times to rest and renew during the day. You'll pay better attention and do better work, but you'll also be more productive, because you'll get more done in less time.
I know this from my own experience. For years I wrote books by sitting at my desk for twelve hours a day trying to write, but also answering email and taking phone calls.
It was the research that convinced me I'd be better off writing in short, intense, periods of 90 minutes, with no interruptions, followed by real renewal breaks.
For my most recent book, for example, I wrote in three 90-minute sprints each day, starting at 7 am, and ending no later than 12:30 or 1 pm. I wrote the book in less than half the time I had my first three and I put in far fewer hours each day. I also took a nap in the afternoons, and then worked productively on other projects till about 7 pm.
I'm not suggesting you to take my word for it. Test the power of renewal for yourself over the next several weeks. If you notice you get tired in the afternoons, try taking a 20 to 30 minute nap between 1 and 3 pm. Don't nap for more than 30 minutes or you'll wake up feeling groggy. At the end of the day, assess how productive you were in the three hours following the nap. I suspect you'll be amazed.
Even if a nap isn't plausible, try to find other ways to renew over the course of your day—ideally at 90 minute intervals.
Meanwhile, Mr. LaHood, let your flight controllers nap at night. They'll perform better, they'll stay at their jobs longer, and we'll all be safer.
No single behavior is more fundamental to effectiveness at work than being fully rested.
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