[Originally published Black Friday of 2011]
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:
- Sudden shift from working during the day to working during normal sleep hours.
- Long work hours
- Difficulty in sleeping during the day
[2012 Update - this year some stores opened 8PM Thanksgiving Day with many more stores joining the "midnight opening" than in 2011.]
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. For those stores opening midnight or earlier, most employees will choose not to sleep, resulting in them working when they have been 24-30 hours without sleep. 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) [scientific reference: 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 [scientific reference: 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 [scientific reference: 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 - store-level administration & operations support - and reported for work at 10:30 PM Thanksgiving Day. Their store opened at Midnight, and she will be busy from then until about 8 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 and from work to ensure that she does not drive while sleep deprived. She got no additional sleep, and will have been awake for more than 26 hours by the time she returns home in the morning. I on the other hand, have a sleep schedule which allows me 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.