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How HR Can Help Employees Stay Alert

August 1, 1993
According to Martin Moore-Ede, president and director of the Institute for Circadian Physiology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there are nine switches to control alertness. Moore-Ede, who also is the author of The Twenty-Four-Hour Society, says that once you know what the switches are, you can help employees turn them on and off. These switches are:

  1. Sense of danger, interest or opportunity:
    The fight-or-flight reaction activates the brain. A stimulating job triggers a similar response. Even asking questions and taking notes during meetings will help.
  2. Muscular activity:
    Any type of exercise stimulates the nervous system by increasing heart and breathing rates, for example, and helps keep you alert. Strenuous exercise can have especially long-term effects. The only problem is that in most of the jobs for which alertness is crucial, people tend to be sedentary. When vigorous exercise is impossible, stretching, walking around and even chewing gum can be helpful.
  3. Time of the day on the biological clock:
    Pay attention to the human biological clock. Create a time cocoon, which means to stay as close as possible to your biological time, no matter what the actual time is. Plan meetings with that in mind. When you have conferences with people in different time zones, be aware of their biological clocks. Remember that people feel drowsy in mid-afternoon and are most alert when their bodies tell them that it's midmorning or late afternoon.
  4. Sleep-bank balance:
    Alertness depends on how long it has been since you last slept. Even if you just cut out a few hours of sleep a night for several consecutive nights, you'll dampen alertness. You can restore the balance in your sleep bank with one night of sound sleep or by brief naps at strategic intervals. A short nap of 10 to 15 minutes provides more benefit than a nap that lasts between 30 and 40 minutes.
  5. Ingested nutrients and chemicals:
    Some foods and drinks can stimulate alertness. Remember, however, that such alertness is short-lived. It isn't the effective way to cope with a fatigued brain in the long run. A few cups of coffee are fine, but more than that and you won't get the kind of sleep you need and will be more tired the next day. Workers might want to consider a 10-minute nap, which can be more beneficial than a 10-minute coffee break.
  6. Environmental light:
    Bright lights can have a dramatic effect on suppressing sleepiness and increasing alertness. However, the light level has to be about the same level as that of natural light. This is one of the most-researched topics in human-alertness study today.
  7. Environmental temperature and humidity:
    Just as a cold shower wakes you up and a warm bath helps you sleep, one of the best ways to keep from dozing on the highway is a blast of cool air. Likewise, offices and control rooms should be comfortably cool.
  8. Environmental sound:
    Sound can perk you up or make you sleepy. Continuous background noise is good for sleep. Loud, stimulating music and radio shows help keep people awake.
  9. Environmental aroma:
    There isn't much research in this area, but it appears that the smell of peppermint makes people more alert.

Personnel Journal, August 1993, Vol. 72, No.8, p. 44.