photo of woman falling asleep at work desk

16 Things to try if you’re falling asleep at work

By Jason Wooden, PhD | April 27, 2021

The reasons people fall asleep at work include poor sleep, nontraditional work shifts, tiring or repetitive tasks, medical issues, and medications.

To stay more alert, your options included getting more sleep, power naps, activity breaks, vitamins, healthy snacks, changes to your workspace, and a host of other remedies.

The many reasons we’re falling asleep at work

Feeling sleepy and struggling to stay awake on the job can be pretty frustrating.

In the US, two thirds of the labor force experience fatigue according to a National Safety Council survey.  Depending on the occupation, an Amerisleep survey found that as many 70% admitted to snoozing on the job.

Feeling tired can make the workday less productive and enjoyable.  For some jobs, it can be a safety issue.

If you’re operating heavy machinery, driving a vehicle, or flying an airplane, nodding off while on the job is not an option.  Unfortunately, it happens with nearly half of truck drivers confessing to drifting off on long-haul trips.

There are many reasons people may struggle to stay awake at work.  Unsurprisingly, poor sleep is one of the biggest issues since one in three people struggle with insomnia every night.

photo of truck at night who’s driver may be falling asleep while working

Among the most common issues are:

  • long work hours
  • odd work hours
  • tiring work or tasks
  • health issues
  • medications

Regardless of why it’s happening to you, it’s all the same – grueling days (or nights).

It can put your job at risk.

It can put the safety of yourself and others at risk.

Since things are already stressful enough on the job, let’s look at what you can do avoid falling asleep at work.

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What to try if you’re falling asleep at work

If you’re struggling to stay awake at work, it should be clear by now that you’re not the only one.  Millions are battling fatigue on the job on any given day.

Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to ward off fatigue and stay more alert.

Some of the options are obvious and simple.  Others will take some time, money, or require a bit of organization.

And you’ll likely have to mix and match to fit the unique challenges of your situation.

cartoon of man asleep in bed

1) Get more sleep

This one is pretty obvious but had to be at the top of list.  It’s likely you’re not getting enough quality sleep given one in three people struggle with insomnia and start the day off fatigued.

For that reason, it’s by far the biggest thing you can do.

photo of a cup of coffee

2) Take a coffee break

A delicious cup of your favorite brew is one of the oldest remedies to fight fatigue and promote mental alertness.

Like anything, it’s important not to overdo it.  Too much coffee can dehydrate you, make it harder to stay fall asleep at night, and lead to coffee addiction.

photo of lady taking a nap in the car so she doesn’t fall asleep at work

3) Sneak in a power nap

A quick snoozer can do wonders if it’s workable for your situation.  You can try sneaking in a nap before work, during a break, or over lunch. If it’s not doable in your work area, relocate to your car.

Sleep experts recommend you keep your naps under 15-20 minutes so you don’t wake up in a brain fog.  You also don’t want to be late returning back to work, so set an alarm.

More power nap tips

photo of women taking a walk

4) Talk a walk

Getting the heart rate up and the blood flowing can raise your energy.   If pressed for time, try a 10 minute walk.

5) Get up and move around

Sitting still or standing for long stretches can make you feel tired.  It’s also not best for you ergonomically. 

Get up and take breaks to move your body every few hours.

photo of glass of water which might help keep you from falling asleep at work

6) Drink water

Fatigue can be a symptom of dehydration and dehydration can make it more difficult to concentrate.  As a healthier alternative to caffeine in the afternoon, try a glass of water.

7) Take vitamins

Vitamins are one way to boost energy, especially if you’re not regularly eating a well-balanced diet.

Learn more

photo of trail mix , a healthy snack to keep up the energy levels

8) Keep a stash of healthy snacks

Healthy snacks can help keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady while at work.  Avoid over sugary snacks that lead an energy crash hours later.

Instead, look for foods with a mix of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats such as:

  • trail mix
  • hard boiled eggs
  • fruit and nuts
  • seeds
  • raisins and peanuts
  • fruit and peanut butter
  • veggies and humus
  • Greek yogurt
  • beef jerky (without the added sugar)
  • popcorn

More snack ideas

photo of music earphones which can be used to help people from falling asleep at work

9) Music

The right music can be energizing and help you make it through a lull in the day.

10) Avoid computer fatigue

Staring at a computer screen for hours on end can strain your eyes and be tiring.  Be sure to take regular breaks.

Learn more

photo of sugary donuts which may cause you to crash and falling asleep at work

11) Watch the sugar!

Too much sugar can lead to blood sugar spikes, energy crashes, and leave you drowsy.

12) Mix things up!

Doing the same thing for long stretches can sometimes lull you to sleep, especially if you show up to work behind the eight ball on sleep and you’re doing something monotonous.

Try adding variety to the tasks of the day.

13) Try a change of scenery

Look at the same thing every day can be monotonous.  Switching to a new setting can sometimes be energizing.

Try taking your work to a lounge, conference room, or outdoor setting.

photo of thermostat

14) Keep your work space cool

A warm room can lull you to sleep, especially after lunch.  Try a cooler room temperature or cracking a window.

15) Adjust your lighting

Working in a dim low-light room can also lull you to sleep.  Try brightening up your work area with a lamp or with natural daylight through the windows.

photo of a light turkey sandwich for lunch to avoid falling asleep at work

16) Eat lighter meals

Heavy meals can slow down your metabolism and make you feel sluggish.  Try eating lighter meals at lunch.

Caffeine-free alternatives worth a try to keep you from falling asleep at work

A quick cup of coffee or tea can do wonders if you’re struggling to stay awake at work.  However, too much of anything can become a bad thing.

As you load up on double expressos to make it through the afternoon, it can come back to bite you later at night and keep you from falling asleep.  Also, there’s the very real risk of caffeine addiction which can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Good news is that there are plenty of caffeine-free alternatives worth a try.

 

I’ve already mentioned plain water, but there are others worth checking out:

1) Sparkling water:

It gives you pop and fizz without the caffeine or sugar.

can of flavored carbonated water

2) Flavored sparking water:

You can find fizzy water flavored with lime, strawberry, and many other flavors.  You can also just add slices of your favorite fruit to a glass of fizzy water.

glass of carbonated water mixed with fruit juice

3) Sparkling water with juice :

Add your favorite fruit juice to fizzy water for something that may also help satisfy your sweet tooth.  Make sure you use juice with no added sugar.

photo of sliced coconuts which has nutrients which can help keep from falling asleep at work

4) Coconut water:

A popular drink with natural vitamins and electrolytes.

photo of cup of ginger root tea which help fight fatigue so you don't fall asleep on the job

5) Ginger root tea:

Ginger root has been linked to many health benefits.  It’s believed to fight fatigue by improving blood circulation and blood sugar levels.

photo of cup of chicory coffee which is a caffeine free alterantive to help avoid falling asleep at work

6) Chicory Coffee:

Available online and made from roasted roots of the chicory plant, it tastes similar to coffee but is caffeine free.

7) Golden Milk (Turmeric Tea):

Golden milk is a traditional Indian drink made with warm milk, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper.   Vanilla and honey is often added for a little extra flavor.

Learn more:
Golden milk recipe (easy)
Golden milk recipe (fresh turmeric root)

photo of cup of rooibos tea for alertness and to keep from falling asleep at work

8) Rooibos Tea:

Slightly sweet and caffeine free, Rooibos tea is made from leaves of a shrub native to South Africa.

Don’t overlook these underlying issues if you’re falling asleep at work

Tried simple fixes and you’re still struggling to stay awake at work?  There may be some underlying issues you need to deal with especially if your day time tiredness has become a major problem

If you don’t deal with the underlying issues, you may be just sticking a band aid on things.  They’ll keep you from being as well rested as you could which will only make things harder than they need to be.

Poor sleep hygiene:

There’s a long list of things that can cause problems for sleep.  This makes it important to practice good sleep hygiene, the everyday habits that set the stage for deep restful sleep.

For better sleep hygiene, you should:

  • keep consistent wake up & sleep times
  • avoid naps
  • exercise during the day
  • avoid large meals, alcohol, or stimulants such as caffeine before bedtime
  • maintain a regular bedtime routine
  • avoid using TVs, laptops, or other electronics before sleep
  • keep your bedroom dark, cool, quiet, & relaxing

Sleep disorders:

If poor sleep has become a fact of life for you, you may be suffering from a sleep disorder.  In the US alone, this is the case for 50-70 million adults.

There are many different types of sleep disorders, some more common than others.  They range from chronic insomnia to sleep apnea.

If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, your doctor can refer you to a sleep specialist.

Learn more

Shift work disorder:

Speaking of sleep disorders, working nontraditional hours such as on an evening, night, or rotating shift is a common cause for fatigue on the job.   It’s just hard to keep your natural sleep clock on schedule when your sleeping at odd hours and out of sync with the sun.

Learn more

Health issues:

One of the reasons you could be struggling to stay awake at work is because of health issues.

First, there’s the things that can directly cause day time fatigue:

  • anemia (iron deficiency)
  • underactive thyroid
  • coeliac disease
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • diabetes
  • too much calcium in your blood (hypercalcemia)
  • infections

And then there’s the things that could be making it harder for you to get quality rest.  Most people aren’t aware of how many different things are linked to poor sleep.

The list includes chronic pain, heartburn, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and asthma.

A doctor can check for underlying health issues..

Learn more

Mental health challenges:

Stress, anxiety, and depression can leave you feeling drained.  They are also linked to poor sleep.

And it turns out that people who sleep poorly are more at risk for stress, anxiety, and depression.  If you’re not careful, you can get in a vicious cycle where more of one leads to more of the other.

A type of counseling known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective for both anxiety and depression.  It focuses on changing thinking and behavioral patterns.

Learn more

Medications:

Some commonly used medications can make it harder to stay awake

Among the medications known to cause drowsiness are:

  • antihistamines
  • allergy meds
  • anti-psychotics
  • antidepressants
  • anxiety meds
  • muscle relaxants
  • antidepressants
  • heart meds
  • prescription pain meds

Sources:

1. “Workplace Fatigue Statistics and its Staggering Costs”, 2020, ErgonomicTrends.com

2. “Sleeping at Work”, 2020, Amerisleep.com

3. “Talking Points”, World Sleep Society website

4. “Driver Fatigue: The Dangers Of Drowsy Truckers”, Rayneslaw.com

5. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, Am Fam Physician. 2009 Mar 1;79(5):391-396.

6. “7 Medications That Can Make You Tired”, 2020, goodrx.com

7. “What causes fatigue, and how can I treat it?”, medicalnewstoday.com

8. “Some phytochemical, pharmacological and toxicological properties of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe): a review of recent research”, Food Chem Toxicol. 2008 Feb;46(2):409-20.

9. “Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics”, American Sleep

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