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What to do when “more caffeine” isn’t working and “more sleep” isn’t possible.

Everyone knows that sleep is important, but for some occupations, it’s not always possible. Getting six hours or less of sleep in a 24 hour period is linked to a variety of health issues including fatigue, depression, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, and a decreased immune system[1]. We know this, but a new parent, first responder, or shift worker might laugh in your face if you tell them they need to get 7 hours of sleep a night. This is one of the reasons why 90% of Americans consume caffeine on a daily basis [2]. It’s also one of the reasons the energy drink market is the fastest-growing beverage product in the United States.


Energy Drinks and Health Risks


Energy drinks are one of the top-selling packaged beverages in the United States. In 2019, energy drinks accounted for 31 percent of the dollar sales of packaged beverages sold at U.S. convenience stores [3]. It’s true that some energy drinks have more caffeine and sugar than a standard cup of coffee. However, unlike coffee, energy drinks don’t share a standard formula. As a result, they don’t all pose the same risks to one’s health. To make matters more confusing, it’s becoming even harder to identify what is and what is not an energy drink. Of the three caffeinated beverages below, the Starbucks TripleShot Energy has the most caffeine and the most sugar.


Drinking Caffeine Strategically To Beat Burnout and Workplace Fatigue


How much caffeine you drink, at what time of day, how fast, how often - these tiny details make a huge difference when it comes to both your physical and your mental health. For example, drinking caffeine within the first hour of waking up makes caffeine less effective due to a hormonal chain reaction called the Cortisol Awakening Response [4]. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and increasing cortisol one of the ways caffeine makes us feel alert. However, drinking caffeine during this Cortisol Awakening Response reaction is like shoveling your driveway in a snowstorm. After 30 minutes of work, you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished nothing at all.


If you want to help your team get more OOMPH from their caffeine and help them reduce workplace burnout, here are three key strategies to try.


STRATEGY ONE: The Caffeine Nap


Napping before a night shift led to a 48% decrease in accidents in one study [5]. And while short naps can improve performance, consuming caffeine immediately before a nap was shown to be more effective than either the caffeine or the nap alone [6]. The key is the timing. Caffeine takes 20 minutes to kick in. So if you have a small amount of caffeine immediately before a nap, the caffeine will kick in right as you’re waking up from the nap. This strategy helps reduce sleep inertia - the grogginess and decreased mental performance that can happen when someone goes from being asleep to making critical decisions in a short amount of time.


STRATEGY TWO: Know the Signs of Burnout


Burnout is not the same as being stressed or tired. Burnout is characterized by an overwhelming sense of detachment, cynicism, and lack of engagement. When someone is burned out, it can feel like their efforts don’t matter and they have no motivation to do their work. If someone on your team is struggling with burnout, caffeine can aggravate the situation. For example, a study of nurses showed those who drank energy drinks reported worse sleep quality and higher levels of stress than those who had coffee or caffeinated soda [7].


In addition, there are external tools and services that can be exponentially more helpful than caffeine. Tools like Alert Meter can help team leads identify when someone is unfit for work due to sleep-deprivation or burnout [8]. Furthermore, services like Man Therapy provide an interactive mental health campaign that employs humor to cut through stigma and tackle issues like depression, divorce, and anxiety [9].


STRATEGY THREE: Adopt a Proportionate Response


As a first responder, you wouldn’t give the same treatment to every patient. So why are you giving the same caffeine to Patient Zero (yourself)? If you drink a thermos full of caffeine throughout the day, caffeine quickly loses its effect as your body builds a tolerance. This means caffeine won’t have an effect when you need it most. The smarter way to use caffeine is to use a proportionate response and drink caffeine based on your Level of Fatigue.


The 5 Levels of Fatigue is a system developed by Caffeine Scientist GreenEyedGuide. For every Level of Fatigue, there’s a recommended dosage of caffeine, as well as mental and physical exercises to provide caffeine-free fatigue countermeasures. For example, at Fatigue Level 2, a coffee drinker would be better off nursing a warm cup of decaf coffee. This may seem silly, but caffeine has such a strong placebo effect that someone who drinks a cup of coffee every single day will feel the same level of alertness from a cup of decaf due to the placebo effect of the ritual itself.


For Fatigue Level 3, a coffee drinker should reach for his or her favorite cup of coffee. But for Fatigue Level 4, coffee with extra shots of espresso, or cold-brew coffee would provide the extra boost for that Level of Fatigue. And for Fatigue Level 5, no amount of caffeine will suffice because physical and mental rest is the only solution.


Putting it All Together


In conclusion, sleep is important, but not always possible. Caffeine is the most common countermeasure for sleep-deprivation and stress, but not even caffeine can cure the listlessness, lethargy, and cynicism that comes with occupational burnout. The key is not to drink more caffeine, it’s to drink caffeine more strategically. That includes knowing when not to drink caffeine, and how to combat fatigue and burnout through other means.


About the Author:

Danielle Robertson Rath is the best-selling author of "How to Get Sh*t Done When You Feel Like Sh*t: The Secret to Caffeine, Motivation, and Productivity for the Sleep-Deprived and Overwhelmed" and "Are You A Monster or a Rock Star: A Guide to Energy Drinks". Through GEG Research and Consulting LLC, Danielle uses caffeine science and best practices in fatigue risk management to serve people who work outside the hours of 9-5. Learn More at 5LevelsOfFatigue.com


Reference:

  1. Carey, M. G., Al-Zaiti, S. S., Dean, G. E., Sessanna, L., & Finnell, D. S. (2011). Sleep problems, depression, substance use, social bonding, and quality of life in professional firefighters. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine, 53(8), 928–933. https://doi.org/10.1097/JOM.0b013e318225898f

  2. Mitchell, D. C., Knight, C. A., Hockenberry, J., Teplansky, R., & Hartman, T. J. (2014). Beverage caffeine intakes in the U.S. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 63, 136–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2013.10.042

  3. Conway, Published by Jan, and Jan 25. “Energy Drink Sales.” Statista, 25 Jan. 2021, www.statista.com/statistics/558022/us-energy-drink-sales/.

  4. Powell, D. J., & Schlotz, W. (2012). Daily life stress and the cortisol awakening response: testing the anticipation hypothesis. PloS one, 7(12), e52067. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0052067

  5. Garbarino, S., Mascialino, B., Penco, M. A., Squarcia, S., De Carli, F., Nobili, L., Beelke, M., Cuomo, G., & Ferrillo, F. (2004). Professional shift-work drivers who adopt prophylactic naps can reduce the risk of car accidents during night work. Sleep, 27(7), 1295–1302. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/27.7.1295

  6. Horne, J., & Reyner, L. (1999). Vehicle accidents related to sleep: a review. Occupational and environmental medicine, 56(5), 289–294. https://doi.org/10.1136/oem.56.5.289

  7. Higbee, M. R., Chilton, J. M., El-Saidi, M., Duke, G., & Haas, B. K. (2020). Nurses Consuming Energy Drinks Report Poorer Sleep and Higher Stress. Western journal of nursing research, 42(1), 24–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193945919840991

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