WebRef Update: Featured Article: Health Lessons for Computer Professionals
Health Lessons for Computer Professionals Call it "geek-macho" - with the explosion of the information economy over the last few years, the longtime hacker ethic of no sleep, junk food and staring at a monitor for days on end has been adopted as a lifestyle by tens of thousands. Apocryphal stories abound of startup employees sleeping under their desks, and of promotional coffee mugs that state "You can sleep when you're dead." The goal is to work as hard as possible, and to demonstrate to your boss, your clients, and the guy in the next cubicle that you're going to do whatever it takes to get the job done. If that means that you've got to stay up for a week straight and strap yourself into wrist braces, well, then so be it.
But for all this "work harder longer" bluster, it's entirely likely that these work habits are actually counterproductive, in the short and long term. As a recent Industry Standard story pointed out, "the new economy may be in the hands of people incapable of operating heavy machinery." <www.cnn.com/2000/TECH/computing/06/12/sleep.deprived.idg/index.html>
What does all this overwork result in? In the short term, sleep deprivation can drive your quality of work down, and can impact negatively on your decision making. Long term, you can be ruining your health, cutting your potential lifespan (or for the more capital-motivated readers, cutting your potential total number of wage-earning years). Numerous studies have documented the relationship between sleep deprivation and car accidents. If you're too tired to drive to the 7-11 safely, how good of a job can you be doing in writing a business plan, tracking down errors in your database or setting up a Web server?
Think the risks attributed to lack of sleep are overstated? Ok, how about RSI (repetitive stress injuries) or Carpal Tunnel syndrome? It's hard to get much typing done when your arms are numb, cramped or in pain. OSHA (the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration) studies suggest that "work-related musculoskeletal disorders account for more than 1/3rd of all occupational injuries and illnesses that are serious enough to result in days away from work." Although OSHA's recommendations for workplace ergonomic standards are not yet implemented, it's possible that employers could be held liable (at least to a degree) for their workers' RSI, and that employees can demand either compensation or a change in working conditions. So it's in both your and your boss' best interests to make sure you're not working yourself to the point of damage. <www.osha-slc.gov/ergonomics-standard/faq-overview.html>
So what can we do to take better care of ourselves? I say "we", because I'm including myself in the target audience of this article. I know as much as the next guy that I need more sleep, more exercise and a better diet. But sometimes I also lose sight of the big picture, and need to remind myself just how important it is to pay attention to all of these issues.
One of the first things to do is get more sleep. I know, I know, you're under deadline, you'll rest when you get vacation, there's not enough hours in the day and another pot of coffee would suit you just fine. I understand all of those excuses - I've used them all myself. Regardless of how convincing or snappy your excuses sound though, they don't change the facts - lack of sleep makes you less alert, less productive, more moody, and more accident prone. Doesn't sound like a model employee, does it?
The National Sleep Foundation, an non-profit research group, recently released the results of their "2000 Omnibus Sleep in America Poll." The findings, though unsurprising, were somewhat discouraging. Though health experts recommend 8 or more hours of sleep a night for adults to function properly, the omnibus poll found that "on average, adults sleep just under 7 hours during the work week," and that a full third of adults sleep only 6.5 or fewer hours a night. Why are people sleeping less than they should? Almost half of the adults surveyed stated that they "sleep less in order to accomplish more." <www.sleepfoundation.org/pressarchives/new_stats.html>
The NSF's also probed Americans' self-analysis of the effects of lack of sleep on their work performance. Again, the numbers are discouraging - 51% reported that sleepiness on the job "interferes with the amount of work they get done," 40% said the quality of their work suffers, 68% said that sleepiness interferes with their concentration and 66% said it "makes handling stress on the job more difficult." Almost 20% admitted that they make "occasional or frequent work errors due to sleepiness."
All of this adds up to more than enough reasons to get more sleep, both for your own sake, as well as for the sake of your job and quality of living. The occasional deadline crunch is inevitable - but nobody is especially effective after 72 straight hours on the job.
Revised: June 16, 2000