photo of employees who are falling asleep during meetings

The surprising reasons you’re struggling with falling asleep during meetings and 18 remedies worth a try

By Jason Wooden, PhD | March 8, 2022

There are many reasons besides poor sleep people struggle with falling asleep during meetings – sitting still too long, long work hours, a poor meeting room, health issues, medications, and mental health challenges.

For easier meetings, you can try improving your sleep, power naps, changing your diet, changing your meeting environment, better posture, natural daylight, smart breaks, and various other remedies.  It’s also worth getting a checkup it’s become an ongoing struggle.

Think you’re the only one falling asleep during meetings?

So, does any of this sounds familiar?

You’re sitting at the conference room table and your focus slowly starts to drift as a voice drones on.

Try as hard as you can, you feel yourself losing the battle as you desperately try to stay awake and make it to the end of the meeting.

Before you know it, you’re head is nodding only to wake up in a panic as you realized you’ve fallen asleep in a meeting once again.

We’ve all been there.

No one has put a hard number on it, but staying awake during meetings is a common issue which shouldn’t be a surprise given how many people struggle everyday with fatigue while on the job.

In past surveys, two thirds of workers were found to 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.

In a study commissioned by Verizon, more than a third of attendees admitted to dozing during a meeting.

So, it should be obvious by now you’re not the only one dealing with this issue.

Regardless of why it’s happening to you, it’s all the same to your workday.

There’s the risk of embarrassment and missing out something important that can come back to bite you.

And the risk to your job performance and reputation.

Whether it’s an occasional issue or it’s become something struggling with on a regular basis, we’re going to look at what you’re likely up against and some practical things you can to do to avoid falling asleep during meetings.

Why do we get so sleepy and nod off during meetings?

Okay, it’s pretty obvious that if you sleep poorly you’re more likely to fall asleep during a meeting.

However, there’s also something extra challenging about meetings that can cause people to nod off.

The reasons so many people struggle are varied but include:

  • sitting still for extended periods
  • your body wanting to crash after a long, busy day
  • a stuffy, warm, or poorly lit meeting room
  • one too many meetings
  • overly long meetings
  • a bad time of day like right after lunch

Of course, it could also be that you’re just plain flat bored.

In fact, whether it’s a boring topic or a boring monotone speaker, there’s more to being bored than you would think.

Recent research has revealed that the part of the brain that’s associated with motivation and pleasure can also stimulate sleep.

The idea is that when you’re involved with something exciting or motivational, the feel good hormone dopamine is released.  However, when you’re bored, no dopamine is being released and you tend to feel more sleepy.

This may explain why people tend for feel more sleepy in the absence of motivating stimuli such as when you’re bored.

All the same, these are some of things you’re up against.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the not so obvious reasons you’re falling asleep during meetings.

The surprising reasons you’re falling asleep during meetings

It turns out there’s a long list of things besides poor sleep that can cause daytime fatigue and make it harder to stay awake during meetings:

1) Underlying health issues

One of the reasons you could be struggling with falling asleep during meetings is because something is going on with your body.

Among the health issues directly linked to day time fatigue are:

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

2) Mental health challenges

Stress, anxiety, and depression can leave you feeling drained.  They’re 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.

3) Medications

Did you know many commonly used meds can make it harder to stay awake?

The list includes:

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

Can you get fired for falling asleep during meetings?

I’ve already mentioned how if falling asleep during meetings becomes an ongoing issue, there’s the risk of embarrassment and missing out on something important.

Over time, this lead to a reputation you really don’t want especially if it’s affecting your job performance.

As to whether you actually could get fired, that likely depends on the how big of a problem it becomes, the impact on your employer, and the specific regulations where you work.

In the US, many jobs are categorized as “at will” employment which mean you can quit at any time and the company can fire you at any time. 

In other countries, stronger worker protections exist making it harder to terminate an employer.

How to keep from falling asleep during meetings

If you’ve been struggling with falling asleep during meetings, the good news is that there’s plenty you can do to stay more awake.

Some remedies are obvious and simple. Others may take an investment of time and or money.

And you’ll likely have to mix and match to come with something that works best for you.

cartoon of man asleep in bed

1) Get adequate sleep

Okay, it should be obvious why this is at the top of the list.

It’s hard to stay awake if you start out the day behind the eight ball on sleep. Sooner or later, your body is going to crash.

Make sure you’re getting the best sleep you can every night.

photo of class of water which may help if you’re falling asleep during meetings

2) Stay hydrated

Fatigue can be a symptom of dehydration and dehydration can make it more difficult to concentrate.  Make sure you’re getting plenty of fluids every day, especially pure healthy water.

photo of hamburger and fries which is the type of meal to avoid if you’re falling asleep during meetings

3) Watch what you eat

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

Healthy snacks can help keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady while at work.  Avoid overly sugary foods which can lead to an energy crash hours later.

Try 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
photo of person taking a quick walk to avoid falling asleep during meetings

4) Get in a quick walk

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

photo of lady napping in car

5) Power naps

A quick snoozer during a work break or over lunch can do wonders.

Sleep experts say it’s best to keep your naps under 15-20 minutes so you don’t wake up in a brain fog.  Also, set an alarm so you’re not late for anything.

Tips for power naps (Sleep.org)

photo of a cup of coffee

6) Caffeine

Whether it’s tea, coffee, or an energy, it’s a popular remedy 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 sleep at night, and lead to coffee addiction.

photo of person removing sweater

7) Delayer

Another obvious remedy but couldn’t leave it off the list.  If you’re overdressed in a meeting room, you may get overwarm and start to feel sleepy.

Try shedding extra layers such as a sweater, jacket, or blazer.

photo of person taking notes which can help if you're falling asleep during meetings

8) Take notes

It’ll keep your mind active, engaged, and help pass the time.

photo of professional in meeting talking to coworkers

9) Stay engaged

Another way to keep your mind active.  Join in on the discussion, ask and answer questions.

photo of natural daylight which can help if you’re falling asleep during meetings

10) Get natural daylight

Since our bodies are in tune with day and night, a dim low-light room can lull you to sleep.

Try brightening things up with a lamp or natural daylight through the windows.

photo of thermostat to adjust  if you’re falling asleep during meetings

11) Keep it on the cool side

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

12) Take a quick break

If you’re really struggling with falling asleep during a meeting, you may want to excuse yourself (and others) for a bathroom break.

Use the time to get up, stretch, and move around to help clear your mind.  Walk to a bathroom not too close and splash your face with cold water.

photo of a wood stick figure

13) Adjust your posture

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

In fact, according to a University of Auckland study, a slumped posture may affect both your mood and energy levels.

So, try working in a stretch or adjusting your body position periodically.

photo of packs of gum

14) Chewing gum

Studies have shown chewing gum can help improve alertness.

photo of peppermint leaves

15) Peppermint

Essential oils like peppermint can help with fatigue and promote alertness.

 photo of open window which can help people falling asleep during meetings

16) Open a window

Sometimes a little fresh air may do the trick…

photo of clock with meeting time which is one thing to change if you’re falling asleep during meetings

17) Meet when you’re naturally more alert

Morning larks may want to schedule most of their meetings earlier in the day.  Likewise, night owls might want to stick to afternoons.

If possible, shoot for shorter, more focused, and more interactive meetings.

photo of lady of couch with laptop computer

18) Try a change of scenery

If possible, you can mix things up with a change of location.

Switch the meeting to somewhere that’s flooded with sunlight instead of a dreary windowless interior room.  Try a conference room with a different view or friendlier layout.

What else you can do

If you’ve tried everything you can think of and you’re still struggling with falling asleep during meetings, there’s still hope.

Ditto, if poor sleep has become an ongoing issue for you.

It’s just time get more serious.

 

Depending on your situation, you can:

Improve your sleep hygiene

There’s a long list of things that can cause problems for sleep.  This makes it important to practice the basics of 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

Get a checkup

I’ve already mentioned the health issues that can cause daytime fatigue.

Too many people are unaware how many other medical issues can cause problems or worsen sleep.  The list includes things like asthma, allergies, acid reflux and heartburn, heart issues, chronic pain, and diabetes can keep you up at night.

You may also be living with an undiagnosed sleep disorder such as sleep apnea.

And even prescription drugs can cause or worsen sleep issues.

A doctor can help you work through any underlying issues that may be making your nights harder and causing you to fall asleep during meetings.

Talk to someone

If you’ve been feeling down a lot lately, it’s worth having a chat with a therapist.

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

Altogether, that will make it even harder to stay awake for online meetings.

Sources:

1. “Workplace Fatigue Statistics and its Staggering Costs”, 2020, Ergonomic Trends

2. “Sleeping at Work”, 2021, Amerisleep.com

3. “Meetings in America Study”, Verizon Conferencing

4. “Why do we fall asleep when bored?”, 2017, ScienceDaily

5. “Sneaky Secrets for Staying Awake in a Meeting”, Cleverism.com

6. “What to do when medication makes you sleepy”, Harvard Health Publishing

7. “You’re Fired! How the At-Will Employment Doctrine Separates the U.S. From Many Foreign Nations”, 2016, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C

8. Do slumped and upright postures affect stress responses? A randomized trial. Health Psychol. 2015 Jun;34(6):632-41.

9. Effects and after-effects of chewing gum on vigilance, heart rate, EEG and mood. Physiology & Behavior Volume 133, 22 June 2014, Pages 244-251

10. “18 Essential Oils You Can Use to Boost Your Energy”, Healthline

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