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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An Open Letter to U.S. Retailers [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

 An Open Letter to U.S. Retailers:

You wouldn't allow your employees to be intoxicated at work.

Why are you encouraging them to work while sleep-deprived?

The frank truth is that lack of sleep produces many of the same mental effects as being drunk or high, and Black Friday will be staffed by employees operating on too little sleep.  The busiest retail day of the year is also the day when clerks and shoppers both are at the greatest risk of making serious judgmental errors at potentially high costs.

The factors that could lead to serious lapses in judgment include:
  1. Sudden shift from working during the day to working during normal sleep hours.
  2. Long work hours
  3. Difficulty in sleeping during the day
Many stores are opening at very early hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Shops which normally open at 8, 9 or 10 AM will open at Midnight, 3 or 4 AM.  The employees will have to report to work 5-8 hrs early than normal, in fact, they will start work during the times of the day when they are usually asleep and all bodily functions are at a minimum.  It is as if they had suddenly traveled from the U.S. to Europe, with all of the symptoms of jet lag, without the elapsed time.

To make matters worse, many of your employees will attempt to go to sleep in the afternoon or early evening so that they get a decent amount of sleep before getting up and going to work.  The human body's daily cycles and rhythms involve 6-10 hours of sleep, followed by 16-18 hrs awake.  Most people find it difficult to sleep when they have been awake for less than 12 hours, thus even if the employee *tries* to go to sleep at 6 PM (to be up at midnight and at work at 2 AM) they will spend a lot of time *trying* to sleep, but not succeeding.  It is a well known factor of "swing-shift" workers that it takes about a week for a worker to adjust their sleep schedules from day to night shifts (or vice-versa) [Kolla and Auger, Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, October 2011, volume 78, number 10, pages 675-684].

So now your employees have disrupted sleep cycles, are working during the time of night when their body is conditioned to be asleep, and they are sleep-deprived. What does that mean for their ability to function at their job?  Sleep deprivation slows reaction times, impairs memory and alters judgment.  A study in primates a few years ago demonstrated that following a single night of lost sleep, critical brain areas showed reduced activity, while other brain ares have to work harder to compensate [Porrino et al., Public Library of Science - Biology, September 2005, volume 3, number 9, page e299].  When sleep deprived, it is difficult to form and use short term memory - such as ringing sales and making change.  It is also difficult to make critical decisions, such as identifying shoplifters or when to allow exceptions to sale terms.

Essentially, people who are sleep deprived show many of the same impairments of a person with a legally impaired blood alcohol level even though they do not show the same physical effects [Citek at al., Journal of Forensic Science, September 2011, volume 56, number 5, pages 1170-1179].  While factories, shops and offices that normally operate evening and night shifts have employees who are accustomed to working in the dark hours of the morning, most retail employees (and shoppers) are not.  Thus, not only are your employees *working* impaired, your customers are *shopping* and driving while impaired.  The increase in traffic incidents and police responses on Black Friday is commonly attributed to the size of the crowds, however, the increasing trend of early opening and sleep-deprived public has to be be compounding the problem. 

Finally, the trend of increasingly early opening is robbing your employees of the very holiday and family time that is provided by closing businesses on Thanksgiving day.  In order to *attempt* the sleep necessary to be at work at midnight or 4 AM, your employees have to shut their families out and attempt to sleep or nap during the afternoon or early evening hours.  As described above, they may make the effort, but the likelihood of success is low.

It is a nice sentiment to close your business to allow employees to be at home with their families, but it all rings hollow when you steal the time back in order to be the first store open the next day - particularly with employees who are working while impaired..


This is not a rant against retail or capitalism.  For many years I shopped on Black Friday because it was the only time to shop *for* the kids, *without* the kids.  I understand that retailers are depending on increased volume of sales at discounted prices in these economic times.  From personal experience I know that Black Friday crowds mean that most shoppers will be able to visit only one or two store, thus early opening is an incentive to get shoppers in your store *first*.  

My wife works in retail - operations support - and will be busy from 1:30 AM onward fixing the problems that are guaranteed to occur on Black Friday.  Thus, I *will* be out in the early hours of Black Friday driving my wife to work to ensure that she arrives safely - but then, I have already adjusted my sleep schedule to be able to function appropriately after midnight, a luxury not afforded to employees working day-light shifts on any other day.  

Please understand that this is a reasoned appeal, backed by scientific evidence, to reverse a trend that *encourages* Americans to work, shop, drive and make decisions under conditions that impair all of those functions.  We may *not* be able to reverse the trend, but at the very least I hope that by understanding these effects we will be better informed if/when incidents occur due to sleep deprivation. 


  1. Excellent reason, among oh so many others, to boycott Black Friday. And one reason, I still shop at Hobby Lobby. Closed every Sunday, so their employees can have a day with their families.

  2. The term "Black Friday" was a Philly police dept term for the wrecks, jams and hassles caused by this idiocy. It's been adopted as a marketing hype, portraying shopping as some sort of heroic struggle, and back-justified as some ridiculous notion of necessity. Tell them all to !@#$ off.

  3. As someone who works odd hours without any pattern, I can say yes it will mess with your brain. I find that working a full day, then trying to get a couple of sleep, then working 4-5 hours after midnight basically ruins me for the next day. I get stuck in a sleep 2 hours, be wake for 2 hours pattern until I go to sleep at my normal time. Mostly this works for me, but my body will quite easily slip into a "Kent needs to be awake at 1am" mode if I am not careful.

  4. Oh, yes. While we're at it, let's add in a whole lot of other practices that encourage/cause sleep deprivation in employees.

    My personal bitch is the software places that leave all the major fixes until the week before a release, then expect massive amounts of overtime from everyone. Then wonder why that release is full of problems - which have to be fixed, and delay things for the next release, compounding the problem...

  5. A related bit of idiocy is scheduling all your system upgrades, transparent failover tests, etc for midnight, instead of 8am IT staff time.

  6. Currently experiencing what you discuss in this article. I work second shift, normally wake up around noon, and have been scheduled for morning training meetings. I wind up not learning well beyond the notes I take, and due to messed up biorhythms, unable to perform my regular duties well if at all. Much better to pull half a day's vacation for reasons of safety and effectiveness.


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