Feature Archive

Better Sleep on Business Trips

Road warriors need sound sleep to be at their peak.

By Michael Breus
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Business travel and sleep do mix; they have to, or you will be far less productive than you may think. Business travel demands high performance amid stress, hectic schedules, heavy meals, and late nights -- all a recipe for poor sleep.

If more of us realized the importance of sleep to performance, not to mention health, we would get a lot more done and feel a whole lot better doing it. Losing as little as one and a half hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by about one-third. Excessive daytime sleepiness impairs memory and the ability to think and process information. Sleep deprivation also leads to mood alterations, attention deficits, slower reaction times, and increased risk for accidents. And sleep deprivation is cumulative, building a sleep debt that must be paid.

Alertness Solutions, headed by Mark Rosekind, PhD, a former director of NASA's Fatigue Countermeasures Program, conducted a study of travelers on trips crossing more than two time zones and lasting two to four days. It revealed some interesting findings and confirmed others:

  • A few hours of lost sleep combined with business travel significantly reduces performance.
  • Business travelers perceived themselves as performing at a much higher level than they actually did (a 20% drop).
  • Travelers actually performed best during mid-day, not early morning, which many consider to be prime time for productivity.
  • Of those who rated their performance highly, half fell asleep unintentionally on the trip.
  • Study participants slept, on average, only five hours the night before a trip, the lowest of the entire seven-day monitoring period. But they reported getting an hour more sleep than they actually did. "Any sleep period less than six hours a night begins to significantly diminish performance," Rosekind says. "Essentially, travelers are at a decreased productivity level before they even walk out their door."
  • Those who exercised during their trip performed an amazing 61% better than non-exercisers.
  • Study participants registered a total sleep loss of almost eight hours by the time they returned home, the equivalent of one full night's sleep.

Traveling Over Time Zones

Flying across time zones changes the principal time cue -- light -- for setting and re-setting our 24-hour, natural day-night cycle, or circadian rhythm. Our internal clock becomes out of sync or mismatched with our current day-night cycle. Our circadian rhythm greatly influences when we sleep, and the quantity and the quality of our sleep. It may also be altered by the timing of various factors, including naps, bedtime, and exercise.

In general, "losing" time is more difficult to adjust to than "gaining" time. Traveling east we lose time; west we gain. An "earlier" bedtime may cause difficulty falling asleep and increased wakefulness during the early part of the night. Going west, we fall asleep easily but may have a difficult time waking.

Generally, it takes about one day to adjust for each hour of time change. A trip across one time zone for a couple of days should not cause much of a problem for most people.

You can re-set your internal clock to adapt more quickly to the time changes. Your circadian rhythm is internally generated but is influenced by the environment, behavior, and medications. It is important to expose yourself to the light during the waking hours as much as possible, and conversely, do not expose yourself to bright light when it is dark outside. Even the light from a computer screen or turning the light on in the bathroom in the middle of the night can adversely affect your sleep.

Pre-Flight

Take steps before your trip to ensure you'll get adequate sleep on the road.

  • Plan ahead. Packing your luggage, finishing presentations, family affairs, confirming flight and hotel reservations, printing your boarding pass, getting to the airport on-time ? a little planning goes a long way. Leaving things to the last minute increases stress and may cause a late-night bedtime, the last thing you need. You may also want time your flight to arrive in the morning when losing several hours of sleep to get that light cue to help re-set your clock.
  • Be sleep-ready. Get a sleep kit ready to go and leave it in your toiletry bag. Ear plugs, eye covers, some of your favorite soothing music, perhaps a vial of lavender oil -- they will come in handy on the plane or in your hotel.
  • Exercise and eat right the day before your trip to give yourself an edge for some sound sleep. (More on that below.)
  • Get some sleep. Don't start off on the wrong side of the bed. Make sure you are well-rested before you start your trip. It will pay big dividends.
  • Dress for success. Wear something comfortable, loose-fitting, and layered. You never know if it will be too hot or too cold on the plane.
  • Stress less -- expect travel delays. It's just the cost of doing business and it's beyond your control. So let go. If your expectations are in line with reality, you will be much less frustrated and upset. It is a good time to read that book that has been on your nightstand for the last few months.